Arnon Grunberg
Blue Mondays

Oyster Bar

One of the girls in our class came from a titled family, another was a Jehova’s Witness, and there were a few Jewish girls as well. The titled girl gave a party. In her parents’ garden. A class-trip reunion. She invited Koenraads, Diels, and Haaseveld too.
Diels was drunk by the time he arrived. He sat in a corner and rolled a cigarette with shaking hands. The only tobacco he smoked was Javaanse Jongens. He told the story of how his mother sent him out to repair refrigerators when he was only twelve. He told that story all the time at parties. He used to have to cover almost the whole of north Amsterdam, ringing every doorbell. “Do you happen to own a broke refrigerator?” If you ask me, the experience left him with an obsession about repairs, because everywhere he went he repaired things.
We were sitting there under the trees. They had a giant-sized garden. I listened to Diels’s stories dragging on, like the turtle’s story in Alice in Wonderland. Luckily we were called inside just then, to look at slides of the class trip. Everyone walked around with faces that said, “See how well we got along with one another?” Even Martinimartin. That’s what depressed me the most. That they all kept going on about how well they’d hit it off with one another and that they’d sooner cut their tongues out than tell you how it really was.

Next morning Diels had a new aftershave on and Rosie said she wanted to go to the zoo.
I told the caretaker that it was an important Jewish holiday. At school they had a lot of respect for Jewish holidays. The zoo turned out to be much more expensive than we’ve thought. We’d arranged to meet a couple of other people from our class in front of the lions’ cage, but we just left them to wait and went for something to eat in one of the tourist pizza parlors on Leidseplein. We talked about all sorts of things, about Diels’s refrigerators and Martinimartin and Natasha, and then Rosie said there weren’t just the two of us. I thought she meant that she was having a baby or something, that I was about to hear some dramatic news. She said that she was Yasma, or rather she wrote it down on a coaster. It occurred to me that this sort of thing was going to happen to me quite often in life, that it would really be nothing out of the ordinary for people suddenly to confess to me that they were the ones who had been sending me letters for weeks.

The evening before examination week began, Rosie and I decided to have a meal out. I was to pick her up at the ice cream parlor in the Van Woustraat where she worked. Rosie called it the Vermicelli Bar because the boss was an Italian. I had to wait outside because they said I kept her from working. She’d told me that it wasn’t at all easy to serve good ice cream, to make nice round scoops. A few days before I’d read in Avenue at the dentist’s that famous and important people ate at the Oyster Bar. So I said to her, “Let’s go to the Oyster Bar. I eat there quite a lot.” We were shown to a table next to an aquarium full of lobsters. We ordered sole and two glasses of wine and then another two and after that another two. Only then did it occur to us that we would have done better to have ordered a bottle in the first place.
The waiter was nice to us. Just as we’d come in I’d heard him say to the other waiter, “They’re making them prettier and prettier these days, aren’t they?” I couldn’t finish the sole, and she couldn’t either. They were enormous fish, and we found out later that they charged you by the quarter pound. We told each other which cocktails we’d already tried and which ones we still had to try. She was wearing an OshKosh outfit and had put her hair up in a little ponytail, which she called her “shaving brush.” Then the waiter came over and said, “Will you be wanting any dessert? Otherwise you’ll have to vacate your table.” We asked for the menu and she sat there gazing at it. I felt awfully hot. She grabbed hold of my hand like that, but I didn’t take much notice. Everything she did with my hand, in fact, passed me by, because I couldn’t stop thinking of the waiter who had said they’re making them prettier and prettier these days.
“Let’s order dessert,” she said, “because while we’re eating we don’t have to pay.” I thought that was a brilliant idea. The waiter came sauntering over to us again. It was obvious that he, too, was feeling hot. Both of us ordered sorbets. Very large sorbets to cool us down.
“What’s that?” she asked the man. She pointed to the menu.
“That is champenoise.” “Let’s have some of that too,” she said.
“Spanish or French?” “Make it Spanish,” she said. She did that very well, saying “Make it Spanish” as if she said it every day.
After the sorbet we ordered ice cream, because there was nothing to do but to carry on, and we finished the Spanish bottle slowly, and then she said, “I think I’m getting a pimple, I can feel my skin getting really tight.” By then it was ten o’clock and the place was filling up fast. There were lots of families on holiday, and businessmen. She took out her fountain pen and started to write on her white napkin. I saw the waiter looking, but he said nothing. I didn’t say anything either. There aren’t that many moments in your life when you’re sure you can do anything you want, but I hadn’t yet realized that. I probably didn’t say anything because I was thinking the same thing she was. She covered the whole linen napkin with writing. She wanted us to sign an agreement never to become grown-ups. Later I signed a few other agreements like that, but never again on a napkin.
I signed it in the Oyster Bar on July 3, 1986, with her fountain pen. She wanted to take it home, and I could see that they were starting to mop up in the back. I looked at her, with her narrow face with those slightly projecting cheekbones, and the small mouth with the large lips, and her eyes that sometimes looked green and then went brown again, and her eyebrows, which she had put on with a whole collection of pencils from the case she always carried with her. I remembered that it was exam week, that we had done no work, that they couln’t hold me back a grade, but they could do it to her. I remembered her telling me in Beatrix Park that she might easily go on serving ice cream for the rest of her life. At the moment, that did not seem to me the worst of all possible fates.
“We’d like to go home now,” said the man, and placed a dish with four peppermints and the check on the table.
I remembered the teacher telling her one day, “Just write that down in your homework book.” Then she'd said, “I don’t have a homework book.” It had fallen out of her case. Later a lot more seemed to have fallen out of her case – books and notepads and dictionaries.
“Where do you live?” asked the waiter. Rosie refused to tell him and she wouldn’t let them call her parents, so they called mine. There were three of them by now. They weren’t yelling at us. They just stood around the table. “That’s all we needed,” said one, “walking our legs off all night for nothing.” Then the manager came out to join them. We had eaten and drunk to the tune of nearly three hundred guilders. She looked at the lobsters and so did I. They went to call my father, and we had to wait. Most of the lights had been turned out by then and everything cleared except for our table, which still had a cloth on it, with the dirty glasses and the empty champenoise bottle. Nobody said a word, except every so often she’d say, “What a bummer.” The waiters had to keep hanging around too. I felt sorry for them because the manager bawled them out. “Couldn’t you have told the moment they came in?” he kept asking. “Couldn’t you have told?” One of them was bald and didn’t reply, and it was only when the manager had gone that he said, “Bullshitting, that’s all he’s good for.” To us he said, “He’s one hell of a bullshitter, you know. He can bullshit everyone under the table.” He was the man who’d said they’re making them prettier and prettier these days. We were given a glass of water because the ventilation had been turned off, and we were quite thirsty from all that champenoise.
Finally my father turned up, in a taxi. He had obviously just gotten out of bed, because his hair was a mess, his shirt was all over the place, and he had a red nose from the wine he’d been drinking that night. He wrote two checks. He was much calmer than I’d expected. Then he turned to us and said, “Are you out of your minds, you two? Don’t you know anything about money?” To me he said in German, “You’re just a bum,” and he said to man from the Oyster Bar, “The last time I was here was ten years ago, with my wife’s family, and you were all crooks even then, and if my son ever comes back I’m telling you right now you’d better not serve him, because I won’t get out of bed for you a second time.” “You go straight home now,” he said to me, “but not in my taxi.” Then he was gone. They cleared our table and wished us a good night.
My parents had not yet gone to bed when I got home. They were sitting in the living room. Or rather my father was asleep on the sofa and my mother was sitting at the table drinking tea. I can’t remember anymore exactly what happened then, but it ended with my mother smashing half the tea service. That was nothing special. When my sister was still living with us, dishes were smashed on an even more regular basis. We had a white porcelain service, I think it was called Rosenthal – anyhow they had a name, those dishes. My mother flung them to the floor. First she shouted, “I’ll never cook for any of you ever again.” Then she started on the dishes. My father shouted, “Finish them off then – you’ve promised to a hundred times. Why don’t you keep a promise for once in your life?” She shouted at me, “You’re vermin just like your father, your father’s whole family is vermin, and vermin eat off the floor.” After that she threw the food, a beef sandwhich she’d kept for me, all over the Persian rug. Then all hell broke loose. The woman from next door called to say that she didn’t wish to interfere, all she wanted was to be allowed to sleep. I heard my mother yell at her over the telephone, “Then take a sleeping pill. I’ve taken sleeping pills all my life. You think it would kill you if you took a sleeping pill just one night?” At three-thirty in the morning things became a little quieter, and then they decided I would have to go stay with my sister in Israel for a few weeks. That was the first time they decided that, and afterwards they decided it a few more times. So I could calm down there. I thought it more likely that they wanted to calm down themselves. That was ridiculous, though. They never calmed down.

The whole week before I was supposed to go to Israel we arranged to meet every day at a table outside Le Berry. We drank iced black-currant gin and took turns getting french fries. It was so hot that the little packets of mayonnaise turned porous in the sun and burst open all by themselves. I even had to buy drinks all around for a Frenchman and his family one afternoon because I was accused of squirting mayonnaise onto his shirt. After that we wouldn’t buy any more drinks for the rest of the day.
The night Argentina played Germany in the final we couldn’t sit outside the café, because they’d put up a huge screen on the wall of the municipal theater to show the game. The place was so crowded that I thought we’d never find each other, but Rosie found me all right. She said, “I could smell you.” I had bought some cologne a few days earlier and had sprinkled it liberally all over myself. Even so, I didn’t believe her. That night we drank iced black-currant gin at a café near Central Station. When Argentina won I just had to kiss her.