Last night the hotel was like a living organism, the hallways warm and dimly lit in embryonic crimson. We wandered together down corridors lined with low couches on which strangers reclined, conversing in murmurs. Earlier, from across a crowded room, I saw you talking to another woman, and felt a desolation of jealousy. But you looked up, came over to me, and drew a line down my face with your forefinger, swift and sure. My whole body arched to meet that fleeting stroke, already withdrawn, and I was left shaken with relief and need.
What is this place, this hotel? Its location is temporal, somewhere in a narrow valley, shut in by bare, mounded hills on either side. The sun does not rise or set here; the light is the diffused gray of an overcast November day, as gray as the hotel, whose blank windows reflect the featureless sky. I have seen the hills dusted with light, dry snow, as well.
Inside, the lobby is commanding, the ceiling high as a cathedral’s, the elevators huge and glass-walled. Sometimes a wide marbled staircase ascends to a mezzanine where one can look down on the entrance before retreating to the hallways and rooms. The true luxury is space, not precious things, not opulence nor abundance of furnishings, but the immensity of this enclosed empty space.
And through the hotel walk people from my life, important people; their arrivals unanticipated; they greet me with warmth, then too soon they fade into the hotel, into the innumerable, inviolate rooms.
The first time I found the spa, it was on the second floor. An ordinary room, with exercise equipment and attendants, but farther back, through a crevice in the wall, I saw natural caves, with stalagmites and steaming pools, and people, surely hotel guests, half-hidden by mist as they soaked and relaxed.
Usually, the swimming pool is indoors, in some distant wing of the hotel, severe in cement and simplicity; at other times I come upon it outside, perhaps enclosed in stone walls covered with vines. People swim and play in the water or sit nearby, drinks in their hands. Once, the best time of all, I found it at the center of the hotel, in a solarium filled with tropical plants and trees, the air warm and humid. A dark-eyed man stood too close and knowingly proffered a drink.
Banquets are often held at the hotel, tables covered with tempting food: oysters on the half-shell, displays of sugared fruit. I am not always hungry, or I glimpse these tables at a distance, perhaps set for members of a conference. But I have stood beside these tables with friends, and filled my plate with smoked salmon, and discerned within the pastry the delicate flavor of raspberries.
The amenities offered by the hotel are not constant; they shift position and aspect, so that the true delight is in their discovery, unmitigated by repetition.
Tonight the dining room is in discreet sections, multileveled, with muted lighting and brass railings. I sit at a linen-covered table and cup a snifter of brandy between my hands, lovely liquid amber, oddly tasteless, and the waiters do not serve me but hover obsequiously over the rightful hotel guests. Who are the ghosts here? Are the humans of my brief encounters mere phantasms, borne of some impersonal dissipating energy, or cruel torments sent by the hotel?
I want; I want; I stalk the halls, floor to floor, searching. I find a long narrow room, lined with bookcases on either side. I handle several fabric-covered volumes with reverence, but I do not open them; I cannot be deterred. I am lost inside the hotel, a vague and endless haunting.
Sometimes, muffled by walls and padded carpeting, I hear strains of music or the distant thumping of bass and drums. Is my band playing without me? But if I find them, they are often strangers, or I do not recognize the music.
Oh, the weight of it, the breadth, the rearing bulk: how the hotel presses, sentient, its hallways silent with reproach. It keeps its secrets from me, hides its access from me, a door closing in the corridor behind me clicks with finality, sacrosanct in privacy.
I dress in my room, in a long white sheath that stretches tight over my body, a dress I have never seen. On the counter below the mirror, I find gold jewelry: earrings, necklace, bracelet. My face in the mirror is different, someone darker, more exotic. I sweep my hair back, admiring.
I have a performance tonight; I will sing and play: a solo act. I have some trepidation about the solo aspect, but I also have a large, handsome escort waiting outside the door, and we are already pleasantly drunk. I am half-pulled along the darkened halls, laughing, clinging to a muscular arm, smiling at the party-goers who congregate at the entrance to the lounge.
I sit outside the hotel, on the edge of a sidewalk. You come from across the parking lot, a silent, lone figure. You walk over to me, stoop, tilt my chin up with a finger and kiss me. A simple, wordless gesture. How can you know to do this? Something deep inside me, something perhaps as small as a cluster of cells, collapses and spreads outward. You leave, entering the hotel, and I sit in the gray light, watching the parking lot and the bare hills, wondering.
I am beginning to suspect the hotel. I believe that it wants to keep you from me. I try to get upstairs; I know you’re there, but elevators rock frighteningly and fail, staircases deteriorate and end in mid-air. I take great risks, crawling across narrow beams to attain the hallways of these floors without numbers.
I hear rumors of you; that your room is down at the end of this or that hall; you are believed to be eating dinner, or swimming. I chase these rumors around the hotel, and sometimes I find you, but our meetings are short and unsatisfying. I am learning to hate the hotel.
We sit next to one another on a bed in an anonymous room, the lamplight low and warm. The mattress is firm beneath us, the bedspread crisp in autumn colors. You seem attentive tonight; your eyes are kind; our arms brush lightly as we talk. Each nerve end focuses to receive and prolong these transient sensations, the hairs on our arms grazing, then the cool, electric contact of skin. Delightful spirals echo in the pit of my stomach; I don’t know what we say to one another, our words are incidental. I sit basking in your presence, wondering how to touch you in honesty. I wait and wait for a sign, but we seem frozen in time, trapped by this gentle intimacy. Your voice murmurs on, softly monotonous. The room will remain pristine; we will leave no imprints here.
We walk the halls, we meet in rooms, we sit on beds, close together, over and over again; I am sick with wanting you. In my beleaguered mind, I imagine us, how we will touch, first with hesitance and then with fervor, how your hands will fit my flesh, how your tongue will invade me.
One night I deliberately slide my hand inside yours and you take it, and press it. I am washed clean, my expanses of fear and longing contract, filled with relief and gratefulness. Tonight I can want nothing more.
Now realization floods me, staggers me: the splendor, the munificence of the hotel! Oh, the wisdom, the kindness, the infinite benevolence! How well the hotel has understood my needs—like a great shaman who leads a nervous acolyte down a long and seemingly random path to fulfillment, so has the hotel led me.
Now I see clearly, and shake my head in bemusement at the necessity of my former blindness!
We lie in a slope-backed bathtub, spoon position, our bodies perfect in our lack of regard, no misplaced hipbone or elbow to distract, no sensations but sliding warmth and rapture. With you I am complete; the body’s boundaries a light enclosing of the firm and healthy flesh, smooth skin against skin. How could anything else compare?
Nights pass in blurred succession, in the room after room, bed after bed. Nights of touching, unhurried and luxurious. Making love, falling asleep, our limbs entangled, waking up, and making love again. I have lived a life with you, a life of nights in the hotel.
You become distant, a figure seen across the lounge or lobby; I see you with other women; sometimes you taunt me, or reject me. Once, when I put my arms around you, you cruelly squeeze my breast. You stay within your various rooms, silent and barricaded.
How has this happened? Why has the hotel withdrawn you from me, turned you against me? I felt no sense of taking you for granted; I had only just discovered the pleasure of certainty, of belonging. Could the hotel have misinterpreted this?
I am left to walk the halls once more, my loss tangible, and more hopeless. The upper floors are breaking up, reduced to framing and boards, chinks where light and wind come through.
And now the hotel itself retreats from me, fading into the mists like an elusive Avalon. How I long for it, for its joys and torments; how I would engulf myself, enslave myself, within its bleak confines, beneath the lowering gray sky, my consciousness contained and controlled, all desire and interminable need satisfied, in utter omnipotence, enigmatic and unforgiving, which is myself, which is the hotel.
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