One of the characters in ‘Saving Charlotte’ is a colorful neighbor described by de Jong in the following essay, excerpted for space:

She worked in the house across the alley from my home in Amsterdam. She had an unusual job. Every day she would come to work and dance provocatively in the window of her bedroom, in full view of the alley, with her hair too-blonde hair, black leather knee-length boots, and a pink brassiere that her breasts peeked out of.

“Why is she always dressed in her underwear?” asked my four-year-old, sitting on our windowsill and looking across the alley. And just as I was framing an answer that might possibly compute to him, he added, “and why does she always close the curtains when she gets visitors, even in daylight?”

She was of course the hooker across the alley, a spillover from Amsterdam’s red-light district, working in a brothel so close to us we could see the queen-size bed in the center of her room, with a single light bulb dangling from a cord above it.

The canal house that we had moved into when we were in our early twenties was so charming that we immediately fell in love with it. In the evenings, it was wonderful to sit on the couch and peer through the window at the peaceful canal with its houseboats and ducks floating by.

At the same time, a less pastoral life was unfolding around the corner, on the alley side of the house. Teenagers and men congregated there every night – shouting at the hooker, bargaining for her special services, fighting with each other. The older man living next-door tried to keep peace by yelling at them, but he only made it worse.

As the years passed, I saw the girl grow from a teenager into a young woman. I got used to her unavoidable presence. She had her reasons to live her life in a certain way, as I had mine.

But when my third child was diagnosed with a devastating illness, I suddenly I wasn’t so sure anymore about how I wanted to live my life. I decided to retreat with my children into my home and try to make sense of this ordeal.

Then one day, I saw the hooker slip a sweater over her bra, close the door of the brothel behind her, and cross the alley. To my surprise, she rang my doorbell. Slightly alarmed, I peeked at her through the small window in the front door. I had never seen her this close up. Her eyes, smudged with her black make-up, looked sepulchral next to her pale skin.

I did not know what to do. Did I really want to let her into my life? This girl, smelling of lovemaking with strangers?

Yet she looked vulnerable, her barely covered nakedness, the way she bit her lip. Her dress looked uncomfortably tight. It must have been brave of her to walk over.

“Hi,” she said, her voice high and girlish, with a Southern Netherlands inflection that surprised me. I have the same accent.

“I came to see your baby,” she said. “I heard she is sick.”

She stepped inside, glancing at my children’s drawings taped on the walls in the hallway. Her heels clicked on the marble tiles as she walked to the living room.

I followed behind, trying not to inhale her stale perfume — a hint of amber, mixed with sweat.

After a minute, she folded herself into our big yellow couch and pulled off her boots. Her skirt slid up the bare flesh of her thigh but she did not try to cover up. I did not know what to say, and neither did she.

“May I offer you some tea?” I said. “Please,” she replied. “Can I hold your daughter in the meantime?”

When I came back, she was singing to Charlotte while rocking her in her arms. Gone was the hooker. Instead I saw the friendly kid sister I never had. The afternoon melted into a peacefulness I had not felt for a long time.

After a while, she looked outside and jumped up. “Uh, oh, a client,” she said. “Time to go back to work.” She let Charlotte drop into my arms, pulled on her boots and ran to the door.

Just before she slipped out, she touched my arm. “You know, I am not religious and all. But every day, when I go home, I stop at a church and I light a candle for your baby.” Then off she ran, across the alley, and by the time she let in an older man in a camel’s hair coat, she was once again a hooker.

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