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Alex walked around the hotel room inspecting it as if all hotel rooms were not the same. Each fell into the traps of their price range. This particular room was no different, paintings of floral arrangements hung over the bed, the curtains were thick like carpet and fell in a softly suspended pile which suffocated all natural light, the lamps were shiny and fixed to the tables, the air conditioner hummed aggressively like a toddler concentrating on a coloring book.
Everything was neat and clean and tucked away conveniently. It was the same as every hotel room Alex had ever been in, excluding small local accents (Pueblos in the Southwest, Botanicals in Florida). The one exception was a very lavish establishment she and her husband had won a free night at from a raffle and a flea ridden hotbox she had been forced to dream a few unsatisfactory hours in after starting to nod off on the highway outside Cleveland. The posh spot had been uncomfortable. Tom, her husband, had walked around with his hand in his wallet tipping everyone he saw in uniform. Even Alex had to admit she glowed a certain soft shade of crimson when paying with their free voucher. She couldn’t remember the cheap highway place, except the feeling of little, many footed animals moving about in the dark and the sound of sex through the wall. But those were other rooms in what Alex now realized was another life. A life she planned in all sincerity to return too. Tomorrow. Or the day after at the latest.
She opened the bedside drawer and fingered the remote before instead lifting out the Bible. She opened the book at random and stared at the words, but her thoughts were on the last hours.
At 5 o’clock her doctor had broken the news. The cancer was spreading. The chemo wasn’t working, just sapping her immune system. Killing her faster. They decided to stop treatment and instead focus on the symptoms. Forfeit. Concede defeat. Prepare for what they had always searched for the slimmest of chances to hope against.
She drove home in silence, cutting off the radio before its influences could take hold. At 6 o’clock she broke the news to her husband. She didn’t want to, but it just slipped out after he asked how her day had been. There was the expected crying. Alex was annoyed. She was the one dying, and he was the one crying. As she stood there contemplating her husband as he turned into a soggy sandcastle, she lost all the patience she had ever had in her life. She took a few deep breaths through her nose before turning and leaving.
She slammed the door shut behind her, enjoying the definitive silence it created. Tom had just began lamenting about poor Sarah, their daughter, when the resounding slam struck him mute. The effect upset his balance slightly and he rattled like an empty paper cup unsettled by a breeze. He even had to sit down for a moment. By the time he recovered his senses, the echo of howling tires was all that remained of Alex.
She drove. Fast. Without destination. Impulsively she turned into a lot with a brightly lit blue sign that flashed ROOMS AVAILABLE. It was a chain she had heard of and thus trusted more than just any old place. If a company is on television and pays someone to write a jingle, then it must have some standards.
From that moment until now things had happened. Impulses were chased. Events were put in motion. And now she waited patiently like a disciplined dog playing fetch. Alex mixed herself another gin and tonic, measuring the ingredients precisely to take as many minutes as possible. She realized the irony of wasting time since her life was now on a resounding timer.
She checked her watch and then the clock on the bedside table. Her phone was ringing. It was Tom, so she turned it off. She found her reflection in the mirror.
There was always just the one thing she could never bring herself to tell Tom. Most of their stories had spilt out in their first half year together. They spent nights together at her flat. He had roommates, who were boys when together and sweethearts individually, and would always be crashing about at his place. It was like he lived with lawn mowers. They were always turning on TVs, running the microwave, changing the music, wrestling.
It was fun once they were tired of talking about themselves. But in the beginning, they were always at her place. Always with a half-drunk second bottle of cheap red wine glowering between them. Always a foggy ashtray near her. With each story going deeper and deeper into their shadowy depths.
She hadn’t listened intently or at least didn’t remember listening intently. All Tom’s stories were about a certain ex he never called by name. Classic stuff concerning parents and siblings and friends who had changed or never changed to keep pace with him. His hands would shake when he spoke, as if what he said was an exorcism which fought to stay with its host. He would look over her shoulder or deep into the swirling red currents of his wine, as if it was a whirlpool he was considering diving into. His magnificent eyes swam behind half-lowered lids as if they were trapped under icy glass. She liked being with him when he spoke and when the baton was passed with a, What about you? Or, Tell me something from your past. She would start slow, measured, unsure of where she was going. She could see the secret from far away, even when the words began racing out of her. She recklessly drove toward it only to swerve away at the last moment. Some part of here wanted Tom to guess, only so she could deny it with a slight hesitation, which would send shivers down both of their backs and cause him to quickly finish his wine.
She told him worse things. Things which haunted him for months, for years. Things which stalked his imagination and visited his dreams vengefully. Being with two men at once. The professor who was twice her age. All that vanished eventually. Disappeared more and more the longer they were together like the remnants of a dream breaking apart like a fog. He had grown up conservative, or religious or something, which his parents didn’t like talking about. All the shock of Alex’s past scorched his unarmed heart, but he grew to see her as a person instead of some foreign totem, looming uncivilized and strange against his culture’s sky.
It was easy for them. As easy as things can be. Life. Love. Etc. He wanted to get married and she didn’t care so they did. Her baby blue dress made his mom squirm, but it was beautiful. They’d thrown worse parties for worse reasons than celebrating themselves. Then they were married, which is something you don’t realize will happen when you marry. They had jobs. They had debt. They had an ugly car the color of an 80s prom dress. He wanted kids. She didn’t know what she wanted. So, they kept going. Kept doing life by moving forward and even though she knew it wasn’t true, she seemed completely fine to keep going that way until they died. He never showed a crack which let out any darkness or light. His hands never shook, and eyes never grew glassy and far away. There was nothing to talk about and she almost forgot there was this secret she’d never shared. Not with him or anyone. And then she was sick. Alex, the one who had never used a sick day or carried around a cold. Alex, the one who planned trips they would never take. Not Israel or New Zealand or Japan. And suddenly, she felt impermanent and became petty. She bitched about things which had never bothered her. She cried, alone, in the car parked outside the Walmart. Or after dropping Sally off at school. Or on the way to work. She wanted the world to reflect her illness. To suffer with her.
But the secret she’d never told, suddenly became impossible to hold in. It clawed at the door, searching for crevices to squeeze through. Even though it didn’t matter. Besides it being hers. Even though it meant nothing as an act. But as a secret, as something which she had kept for herself, hidden from the world as it gained value like a pearl held a power. A power over what others believed she was. A power over who she believed herself to be. In the shadows it morphed and transformed into an unpredictable beast tugging at desires lubricated by nostalgia and suppression.
After trying on a red synthetic wig that itched, she tied her pink bandana around her scalp. Over the last months she’d grown attached to the piece of cloth. It was like a baby blanket and she felt more hidden with it on, like sleeping with blankets to keep out the dark.
She wanted to be alone, but she also wanted things from people without the burden of interaction. She couldn’t stomach the necessity to compromise or meeting people halfway. Today she didn’t want to forfeit anything to anyone, which she decided was more important than what anyone else wanted.
There were three firm knocks on the door. Alex checked herself in the mirror, flattened her skirt to cover a few more inches of skin and then answered. The man was tall and athletically built. He had short cropped hair and a well-proportioned smile; all things Alex liked. He was young though, very young, which was something she did not like.
“Hello. I’m Laurent,” he said with a clearly fake accent. “You must be Alex.”
The man smiled and walked into the room. “Mademoiselle does not like my name”
Alex was annoyed that they were playing this game. Both knew this was fake. Just because she was paying him for sex didn’t mean he had to be a fantasy. He came in and took off his shoes, setting them neatly by the door. Alex found this endearing and softened toward him. Besides, when he wasn’t speaking, he had a pleasant air and a welcoming face. As he passed her to enter the room, she caught the scent of lavender.
They sat on the bed. She let him touch her leg as he spoke, “This is your first time? I’m going to take good care of you.” He removed his shirt which released a wave of lavender like a field of butterflies being startled. Alex’s midsection buzzed. She thought about how since the chemo she’d had trouble getting wet and wished she had bought some lubricant. She didn’t know what to do with her hands, so she kept them in tight fists and dug them deep into the bed.
“It’s not my first time. I actually lost my virginity to a prostitute.” She laughed curtly.
“What’s so funny?”
“I’ve never told anyone that before.”
“You’re a very beautiful woman.” He stroked her arm and she could feel each inch of skin tingle as his hand passed like a cold breeze.
“Can I make you a drink?” she offered.
“If the Mademoiselle takes one then I will join her.”
His voice was soft, slow and low like it came from somewhere deep in his chest. She turned her back on him and made the drinks in silence, again measuring the ingredients diligently. She twisted the lemon chunks to dry rinds and tossed them into the drink like a sailor pitching the inedible parts of his dinner into the sea. They looked like stripped shrimp shells bleached pale by the sun. She forced herself to turn around.
Laurent looked calmly back at her. His fingers nearly brushed hers as she handed him the glass, passing a jolt of static energy. He smiled at her, “It’s normal to be nervous, but you have nothing to worry about. This is something for you. Enjoy it.” He spoke slowly, as if he was thinking of his accent, tacking curvy purrs onto the end of his nouns. He drank in small sips that didn’t seem to dent his drink. Alex’s cocktail was half gone which she couldn’t remember drinking. “We take things very slow. Very gentle. Just what you’re comfortable with.” As he spoke his hand started moving along the natural curve of her back, turning her momentum slowly toward him, as if she was doing it on her own. She felt herself opening or falling through an opening. They kissed. Softly. And then in half gulps like she was greedily drinking. His breath was hot, followed by cool pockets of spearmint.
He pulled her close and she felt small and safe. This was what she wanted. Not until this moment had she fully realized it. He held her firmly, just how she wanted, without thinking of himself. Not getting it over with or getting to the fucking or needing anything in return. Her money bought his sympathy, his patience, his willingness to put her first, second, and third without needing anything in return but her dollars. This is the future of love, she thought. We will work and work and then have nothing else to give someone else. Then we will pay someone to fill the void and we will love them unconditionally without the jealousy and unfairness that wrecks life. When it is over, they will leave. And we will miss them, but never hate them.
Slowly his hands grew restless, moving onto the next prescribed step. He squeezed the strap of her bra together through her shirt, causing it to spring like a window being blown open.
She stopped, grabbing his hand more aggressively then she had planned. “Stop. Please. Just stop.” The words came out like barked orders. He obeyed and waited instructions just as she wanted. “Just hold me. That’s all I want right now.”
She turned and laid on the bed with her back to him. Laurent curved around her, waxing her crescent moon shape by a week. He ran his hand down her arm and they laid in silence. She looked blankly at the wall and thought nothing, followed by everything all at once. Her eyes flooded with tears which overflowed her lids and dripped onto the pillow without him noticing. She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to know that she must die because realizing there is no life without death doesn’t make anything easier, it just makes it more beautiful. She wondered if life was about making beauty or about nothing and if that would be easier. In Laurent’s arms everything was quiet. Everything was easy.
The hour passed. Laurent kissed her arm. “It’s time, Mademoiselle. Satisfied?”
She wiped her eyes and smiled up at him, “Best I’ve ever had.”
He laughed and grabbed his shirt on the way to the bathroom. Alex rolled to her feet. She found her purse and laid money out in a neat pile shaped like a peacock tail, so Laurent wouldn’t have to count it in front of her. The shadow of his voice could be heard through the door and she crept close to listen.
He was on the phone. The accent was gone and his speech was quicker and more natural.
“Hey, it’s LeRoy. I’m finished here. Can I get a ride? Yeah. No, it was good. No problems. Yeah, see ya in a minute.” Water started running and Alex retreated to the bed.
He emerged fully clothed and smiling. His eyes paused momentarily as they passed over the money before settling back on her. “Here is my personal number. Call me anytime.”
“OK. I will LeRoy.” His face froze for a moment before he laughed and shook his head.
“It’s OK. You don’t need to fake it. I like LeRoy.” A flip switched and he seemed to become human. Ticks and traits in his posture and arms suddenly emerged. He breathed less evenly.
“Sorry,” he repeated. The accent did not return. He sounded like someone you wouldn’t notice at the mall.
“What’s wrong with LeRoy?”
“Never liked it. Makes me sound like a redneck. I tried Lee for a while and then Roy. Both seemed so….simple. My boss came up with the act. He thought it would make me more, I don’t know, memorable. Make me stand out.”
“Well, I’m sure some women like it, but maybe you can stick to yourself with me.”
He smiled at the floor. “Of course.”
It was amazing to Alex how quickly they had switched roles. Now she was the confident one making him feel comfortable. It was cute seeing him vulnerable, but a part of her wished she hadn’t discovered him.
“OK,” he started with enthusiasm. “I have to go. I really hope you call again. I liked meeting you.”
Alex thought he seemed like a polite boy. He kissed her on the cheek and then she brought his lips to her mouth to reassure him. The money was folded into his pocket and the room started exhaling as it sensed the end.
Suddenly, a pounding like the heartbeat of a trapped rabbit started shaking the door. Neither of them moved, each waiting for a clue as to how to react.
“Alex! Are you in there! I have the cops downstairs to let me in if you don’t open up. Please. You can’t ignore me forever. We need to talk about this.”
LeRoy looked at Alex, who rolled her eyes. Forever seemed a bit dramatic. LeRoy pointed to the closet and Alex nodded. “One second,” she yelled. Followed by, “Jesus Christ,” under her breath. She closed the door on LeRoy who failed to look inconspicuous in the empty closet.
Before opening the door, she scanned the room and checked her face in the mirror. Everything seemed in place. How it should be. How it was expected to be.
“Alex! Are you OK?” Tom rushed forward and hugged her. “I was so worried. I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared.”
“Sorry. I needed to be alone. How did you find me?”
“I called the cops and explained what happened and how I was scared maybe you were going to hurt yourself. It was just so unlike you to charge out like that.”
“Well you only get the news you’re going to die once, so you couldn’t have known what my normal reaction would be. And besides, there isn’t much harm I can do to myself that my body isn’t already doing.”
“I’m doing my best to deal with this. I just want to make sure you’re OK.”
“Well, I’m fine.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“I don’t really care.”
“You just got the worst news of your life. I’m sorry for thinking maybe you’re not alright and need some help. Just…”
“Just go home. Please.”
“What is there for you here?” Tom asked. “I’m not leaving you here like this.”
Alex looked around the room and tried to imagine what he meant. As far as he was concerned, she was drinking alone in a hotel room. Not such a terrible thing. Something lonely people did all the time. What was not here was another question, however. There were no words here. Only empty space. There was no one crying or speaking, going on and on and on. It was quiet here. Nothing could come in without her letting it in.
She saw the two glasses on the bedside table and panicked when she noticed the clue. “OK. You’re right. I’m sorry. It was selfish. I just needed time to think. Let’s go.”
Tom looked at her suspiciously, but his expression slowly melted into sympathy after noticing the open Bible on the bedside table. He looked like a teacher who had just taught some pupil a valuable lesson.
She started to gather her things. Tom sat on the bed facing the closet. Alex put together what she had brought, little things she carried with her everywhere, mascara, lipstick, money, cards, fingernail clippers, chewing gum, identification, all the essentials. The symbols of her life. Everything was back to normal in a few moments.
“OK. Let’s go,” she said.
Tom sat there, “I just wish you wouldn’t have done that to me. I was so worried. I was really frightened of what you could do.” He shook his head and ran his hand through his hair before standing and moving toward the door.
“Wait.” Alex spoke like she had something more to say, but really she just needed time to think. Place things. Realize her decision.
“What?” asked Tom, looking around as if the answer was hiding somewhere in the room.
Alex didn’t respond. She wanted to spring the door open, expose the monster of her recent recklessness, show where she had turned for comfort in her time of need. Let the truth crash about violently in the ordered surroundings like steers are said to do in expensive porcelain shops.
Then she thought of poor LeRoy trapped in the claustrophobic space, controlling his breathing so as not to be found out. He would be the naïve accomplice. She felt for him, not wanting to put him through drama that wasn’t his doing.
Suddenly, she laughed, realizing her mistake. Her folly. The world’s folly. “Nothing. It’s nothing. I’m sorry. Let’s go home. I’m tired.” She gulped down the remainder of her and LeRoy’s drinks and the couple marched hand in hand from the room to the elevator and out to their car, thanking the police for waiting.
They drove home.
Alex thought how useless it all was. LeRoy was already, against all odds, something to her. Opening that door just led to the same room with a different view. A room she couldn’t escape because she didn’t truly want too. She wanted people, needed to love them and hate them and feel like scratching their eyes out for being stupid and her still loving them. She loved Tom and she loved Sarah and she would have felt, if not love than something equally as bothersome for LeRoy if she kept meeting him.
Dying would be hard, she thought, and squeezed Tom’s hand. He would be there. But she would not go quietly. She still loved the world, despite itself.
LeRoy waited 3 minutes after the door clicked shut before leaving the closet. He counted the money, took out $50 and put it in his wallet and then returned the rest to his pocket. He checked himself in the mirror and smelled under his armpits. He had an urge for a drink but couldn’t find the remainder of his gin and tonic, besides his ride was waiting. He left the room, letting the door click gently shut behind him. The room was quiet. It said nothing of what it had seen. Someone would come along shortly and change the sheets, scrub the toilet, erase what had happened before someone new arrived.
Michael Harper is a writer and teacher living in Vienna. He attended the University of Iowa and the University of Vienna. His work appeared most recently in the Manzano Mountain Review.