A First-Person Perspective on Tenterhooks: Exiting, an Arrival

Approaching the not-quite-perpendicular outline of a boutique hotel, I spare but a few moments to marvel at its panoramic locus. The place is, in fact, situated a mere half-mile from a cliffside, one sculpted of sandstone sheared so sharply, it implies the existence of a celestial axeman. A walker’s path might plummet precipitously, down to the darkly churning surf, were they not carefully monitoring their footsteps while wandering. The altitude shrinks coastal whales into bathtime toys—viewed in murky tub water, three-quarters submerged.

Though my car’s windows are down, I hear nothing beyond my own wheezing, not a singular seagull squawk or bit of humanly mirth, not any wave-crash thunder or my own vehicle’s growling engine.

The sun and moon are both visible. One rises, one falls, presumably—though, in the delirium that arises during long drives, I am hard-pressed to decide whether day is dawning or dying. There are no other structures in sight.

“The hotel, world-renowned for the intimacy that it lends to each and every visit, exists in a state of perfect remoteness,” is what I read on its website, late at night, one week prior. “Perfect for a wedding,” an old high school acquaintance subsequently assured me, as I hemmed and hawed on the phone, seeking to excuse my hypothetical absence, to no avail.

Formerly a monastery, the hotel maintains much of its original Cistercian architecture: the wide footprint, pointed arches, utilitarianly aligned windows, and smooth stone exterior. Glimpsed from a distance, they make the structure seem a geological fluke rather than anything human-made, an erosion-unearthed link to a past long forgotten.

But with closed distance—in what initially seems hallucinated superimposition, perhaps a mirage’s optical illusion—the hotel’s modern additions become apparent: the reflective glass paneling, the wedge-shaped extension, the automatic sliding doors that lead into its lobby, the porte-cochère where a valet awaits, employed to park vehicles at an adjacent lot. The contemporary touches seem imbued with a profound fragility, an aphid’s ephemeralness. My very next eye blink might erase them entirely.

* * *

As I shift into park, a bronze-complexioned valet approaches. Gliding, he opens my driver’s side door, and assists me in sliding my luggage from the vehicle’s trunk. The pinstriped sleeves and collar of an off-white dress shirt, and the upper nubbin of a leather tie, escape the constraints of the man’s six-button vest. His dark slacks blend into his footwear, to such an extent that all seem a singular garment.

While greeting me, while assisting me, while accepting the ten-dollar tip that I press into his thick-knuckled fingers, while settling behind the wheel of my rental car and easing it into a U-turn, never once does the valet let his eyes meet my own pair.

Gripping the telescopic handle of my rolling duffel bag, striding hotelward, I am stricken by a realization: I’ve already forgotten my rented vehicle’s make and model. Though time remains to turn toward it, and unravel that bland mystery, an inexplicable reluctance has me shrugging, hurrying between parting doors instead.

* * *

Assailed by blatant modernity, my eyes widen. Indoors, every scrap of the hotel’s Cistercian origins is buried beneath vibrancy and opulent-yet-uniform furnishings. All of that plaster, all that mahogany accenting, never adorned the place when it was a monastery, that’s for sure. The chiaroscuro rugs and grand chandelier are far too pristine to possess any antiquity.

Sprawled across Istanbul sofas, finely attired guests cuddle and converse, never meeting my eyes.

Flinging my gaze past such lingerers, I eye-roam those realms adjoining the lobby, exhibited by the hotel’s open floor plan. I sight a restaurant, a business center, a children’s recreation center, palatial ballrooms, and a gift shop, each well-populated by guests rendered strangers by distance.

In danger of going wonderstruck after my many hours of car solitude, I drag myself up to the hotel’s check-in desk. Afore me, a desk clerk—an attractively compact twentysomething dressed in a Hopsack blazer—struggles to maintain her composure while enduring an obvious madman’s beratement.

Tugging what remains of his wispy white mane, seemingly flushed with imbibed intoxicant, the old fellow wails like a cartoon banshee. “I’m tellin’ you true,” he asserts. “There’s a teeny-tiny hole, up in my room’s ceiling, right above the bed. Eyelashes keep raining from it—thousands, I’m guessin’, fluttering down. They get in my mouth while I’m trying to sleep. See ’em on my tongue?”

Peering into the fellow’s open mouth, jittering ever so slightly, the desk clerk says, “I see no eyelashes, sir. If you’d like, however, I can send a maintenance guy up to your room, to plug this hole that’s been troubling you. Would you find that agreeable…sir?”

“Indeed, I would,” the man bellows. “ASAP, I say. As soon as possible.”

“We’ll get you taken care of immediately, after I help this new arrival.” Peering past the irate fellow, she meets my eyes with her azure pair. The good lady’s strained smile becomes nearly genuine.

“Good evening,” she enthuses. “Did you find us without hassle? The hotel, I mean.”

I sure did. No trouble whatsoever, I assure her, wondering if true friendship ever formed between a hospitality industry staffer and a customer. Wishing to learn of the clerk’s childhood, her dreams, and her sorrows—her name, at the very least—I instead utter, Uh…you have a room for me.

“Why, of course we do. And what a room it is.”

Ignored by the both of us, the exasperated elder mumble-scoffs.

I give the woman my name. Consulting her computer, she says, “Okay, we’ve got your credit card on file, and your security deposit is in order. Room 406, that’s the one.” She hands over a keycard. “Your room won’t be ready for a couple of hours, so don’t try this card until then. In the meantime, our hotel has countless amenities available. May I ask what exactly brought you here?”

A wedding.

For the span of six seconds, the clerk’s countenance contorts, assailed by complicated emotions. Finally, she responds, “Ah, yes…the nuptials. In that case, I’d recommend the reception hall, where quite a few wedding guests are already gathered, socializing and such.” She points. “It’s right over there.”

Good plan, I reply, restraining an urge to wink.

Reluctantly, I stride away from the desk clerk. Pointedly, I avoid the eyes of the disgruntled guest. Threading myself betwixt and past clusters of lingering lobby folk, I roll my luggage to the room aforementioned.

* * *

Immediately upon entering, I realize that the space already wears its wedding reception configuration. Dining tables engirdle a parquet dance floor—with the largest reserved for the bridal party, I assume.

A trio of tinier tables will undoubtedly host cake, place cards, and gifts on the morrow. Wall sconces spill soft, warm lighting, illuminating a fully stocked bar, already serving drinks. Making my way around the room, I appraise the clothes of those around me. Most of those present—myself included—have opted for business casual. The scattered outliers that I spot are either attired for maximal comfort, modeling skin-baring summer wear, or dressed in the same sort of formal wear they’ll be wearing to the wedding.

Stumbling into my personal space, guys and ladies enthuse, “Hey there! Remember me? Gosh, it’s sure great to catch up with old friends, isn’t it? Everyone looks so young, too, as if hardly any time at all has passed. And how about this fantastic weather?” Far too embarrassed to request clarifications, I struggle to recall names and faces.

Strangely enough, those new acquaintances that I’m introduced to, in a succession of bewildering instances, are the ones who seem time-lost, half-remembered. Surely I’ve met them somewhere before this, or seen their pictures in one of those ink-sweating newspapers that I used to peruse.  

* * *

Awkwardly aware of a drink’s absence in my grip, I keep approaching the bar, only to be gently tugged by my elbow into a series of strained convos.

Everybody seems so much more relaxed than I feel, as if they’re enjoying themselves, not bound by the invisible chains of social obligation. If only I could be free of my luggage—which anchors me in the uncomfortable, leaning realm of the perpetual lugger. If only I could trust those around me enough to leave it unattended.

Tension rules my psyche. Will an old grudge rear its malformed head? Will unreciprocated attractions vex me with lustful gropes? Will a forgotten humiliation be reiterated to leave me blushing? Was I always so ill at ease around my high school crowd? Is that why I fell out of touch with them, all those years ago?

Onstage, somebody spews a declaration into the microphone, raising their drink as if delivering a rehearsal dinner toast. Distance blurs their identity; their speech arrives garbled, like that of an adult in a Charlie Brown universe. Nobody raises their glass in acknowledgement, or even faces the figure, who soon shuffles off the stage, slump-shouldered, disappearing into the crowd.    

* * *

Lying himself down on the ground, the erstwhile Z-Man contorts his arms and legs. A joint dislocating, undoubtedly agonizing configuration leaves his physique roughly assuming the shape of a swastika. “Remember?” Zelman hollers, flush-faced.

Why would you do such a thing? I might ask. Are you making a statement of some sort? Is this deliberate provocation? But the dude quartet gathering around Zelman has already distracted me. Eating the boutonnières out of their buttonholes, in the grips of synchronized synesthesia, the four fellows drunkenly screech, “Taste the colors!”

Before one or another of them can attempt to shove flower petals betwixt my own lips, I flee. Should I locate a doctor for Zelman? He now seems locked in place.

Hearing chittering overhead, I eye-target it to sight half-a-dozen skeletal, nearly humanoid creatures crawling athwart the ceiling. Unclothed, their camouflage flesh blends in perfectly with the paint, into which the beasts quickly fade, as if only imagined. Pareidolia, I attempt to assure myself, building ghouls out of paint bumps.

Opening my mouth to mutter, to protest the sense of wrongness that overlays everything, I instead find myself yawning, struggling with the weight of my eyelids. Suddenly tired, as if a week had passed without sleep, I check the time on my phone, and realize that it’ll yet be a while before my room will be ready. Surely nobody will mind if I claim a dining table chair, and rest my forehead on my arms.

But such a seat shan’t be found; each has already been claimed. As if reading my intentions, their occupants turn toward me in perfect synchronicity, dozens of eye pairs meeting my own, lips sneering beneath them.

Secure in the knowledge that every wedding includes a lecherous uncle or projectile vomiting cousin, if not worse personages, I decide that history won’t judge me too harshly if I claim a small bit of floor space at the edge of the room, and recline thereupon, repurposing my luggage as a pillow.

* * *

As I drift off into slumberland, as my opposing eyelids draw together, two females I haven’t seen since middle school stride before me, being my last conscious sight.

Having grown into women, they discuss husbands and children I’ve never seen, never heard of. If not for the fact that one points me out to the other, I’d never have recognized the pair as old acquaintances.

* * *

My phone erupts with a ringtone, unignorably grating. A text message from an unknown agency has arrived.

How can that be?

With alleged regret, the communiqué informs me—along with dozens of simultaneous recipients—of a sudden death, of one less living member of our graduating class.

A tail of sympathetic replies—“He was so young,” “Such a tragedy,” “One more angel in heaven,”—dangles from the meat of the message, which can be paraphrased as: Zelman Shub was murdered last night by unknown assailants, while at home in bed three states over. Freshly painted gore swastikas had profaned the walls of his bedroom, polka-dotted with fingerprints defying explanation.

Some kind of sick prank, I think, when I just saw him… Wait just a second, how long was I sleeping for?

Feeling akin to Rip Van Winkle, I stand and survey the reception hall, to confirm that I am its sole remaining occupant. Though a split second glance at the ceiling reveals no presences, or residuum, of any chameleonic ghouls—the organisms I thought I saw earlier—I feel certain that I am under observation, enduring unfavorable judgment.

Ergo, I hurry from the hall, with shoulders hunched and eyes downcast. My room has to be ready for me now. Doesn’t it?

* * *

Drifting into the hotel’s recreation center, I find myself greeted by the frenetic soundtracks of rows of arcade games, by slammed buttons and tugged joysticks, by jangling quarters. Sweat sprouts from the foreheads of steely-eyed youngsters and half-embarrassed adults, as they steer pixel folk into combat, maneuver cartoony vehicles around perilous tracks, and blast intangible bullets from plastic armament.

Heavy hangs their body stench, an odorous fog that just so happens to incite my claustrophobia. Black lights make the carpet designs and wall patterns fluoresce, evoking tropical sea life.

Though I’ve no intention of breaking a twenty, so as to join these obscenity-muttering lingerers in their tests of patience and coordination, I trudge past them all, scrutinizing screen after screen. Every game’s objective seems needlessly complicated. From foreground to background, visual stimuli congests them. Not a single arcade cabinet sports a title I’m familiar with.

My age seems weighted now, a sign around my neck reading OUT OF TOUCH.

* * *

My spirit sighs as I swivel on my heels and retreat back to the lobby, reconnecting with my grim purpose: to see and be seen as a constituent of a bride and groom’s retinue, to burden those I’d once known with the reminder that I yet exist.

My room must be ready by now. Finally, I’ll rid my arm of this luggage. A leftward-aimed arrow advertises elevators. Following it for prolonged minutes, I encounter only locked doors.

I walk and I walk, trying and failing to appear casual. I notice that while each oaken, red door includes an RFID-equipped keycard scanner, not one has a room number.

* * *

With his paneled red jacket, ornamented with twenty brass buttons, and his matching brimless cap—so gaudy when compared with the attire of the other hotel staff I’ve encountered, as if belonging to another establishment entirely—the wizened old bellhop seems the evolution of an organ grinder’s monkey. Pushing a cart piled with irregularly shaped bags and suitcases—pyramids and hexagons, mainly—he offers to carry my luggage. “There’s more stairs than you’d think.”

Embarrassed even by the notion of handing my duffel bag over, of further burdening a figure who seems too elderly for his occupation, I instead ask where, oh where, might those aforementioned stairs be found.

Attempting a friendly au revoir grin, the man points in a direction I soon find myself travelling.

* * *

“Okay, I’m sure that you’re all well aware of facial recognition software, which maintain a database of facial features, which they can compare to photos or videos to identify whomever. Okay, now imagine recognition software that encompasses entire bodies. Good, good. Now, and here’s the revelation, imagine that applied to pornography.”

“What…do you mean?” a half-familiar voice enquires, on cue.

“What I’m getting at is, say you have a favorite celebrity, who you want nothing more than to jerk off to. Unfortunately, try as you might, you can locate no footage of that superstar gettin’ good and properly boinked. Sure, they might go topless for a few seconds in an otherwise boring movie, or pose for a heavily airbrushed Playboy pictorial or whatever, but how’s a modern guy supposed to get off to an appetizer like that, anyway? What is this?

“So, basically, what you do is, you feed as many photos and videos as you can featuring your desired celebrity into our program, which then compares it with our all-encompassing porno database, and seconds later you’re masturbating to a porno star who looks just like your desired celebrity—if you squint, just a little.

“Say you’re a Kim Kardashian fan, but that sex tape she did with Ray J just whetted your appetite. Well, with our easy to use program, you’ll soon land upon videos of Lela Star, who is Kim’s perfect doppelganger, aside from some tattoos. Or say that Scarlett Johansson’s Under the Skin nude scenes have worn out your rewind button, and you’re desperate to see those breasts bouncin’, see that ass gettin’ slapped. Well, you’re in luck fella, or ma’am, because from certain angles, Jelena Jensen looks just like ScarJo—but with even bigger boobies. Can I get an amen?

“Your sister-in-law, that smokin’ hot receptionist, the chick who bags your groceries, whoever…you’ll soon be as good as drillin’ ’em…especially once you pair the technology to our virtual reality headsets and tactility gizmos.”

As a clamor of “Is it too late to invest?” and “Take my money!” erupts, I hurry out of earshot, wondering what the rape corollary of such technology might be. Am I at some apocalypse’s ground zero, or the eve of an Eden? I wonder.

I shove my way through tight clusters of strangers, my exposed flesh sliding across flabby, perspiring arms, guts, and legs. Body funk overwhelms my olfactory receptors. For a handful of minutes that might be mistaken for weeks, it seems that I’ll never again attain elbowroom.

But all discomfitures must pass, eventually. To my inestimable relief, I emerge from the maddening throng unscathed. My stairwell-bound trajectory now drags me past an eye-catching expanse: a ballroom.

Of what I’ve seen of the hotel thus far, nothing compares to this area’s grandeur. Its intricately coffered ceiling is a maze that my eyes wish to wander for days. No meager distance below it, an ornamental balustrade is crowded with theoretical presences: ghosts of all those who might have lined up along it, during a more classical era, lingering in observation, fortifying their courage, awaiting an ideal moment in which to approach their intended.

Ethereal chandeliers and sconces spill forth lighting so cozy that it seems to enwrap me—just like a childhood blankie did, one I’ve only just remembered, and have already imbued with oodles of that ol’ sorcery called nostalgia.      

Dancers beguile me, their orbits carrying them around gold-filigreed columns—none of which quite meet the ceiling. Instead, they trail off into tendrilous, grasping strands, tree branches fumbling for moons.

Men dressed all Stygian, aside from the slivers of dress shirts that exist beneath their ties and vests, lead ladies wearing gowns so diaphanous that they seem dream clouds unspooling. The soundtrack to their elegant choreography could be live music, though no orchestra is spotted.

Revolving their physiques about the ballroom, contorting them every which way, the dancers somehow yet manage to keep the backs of their heads to me at all times. Not one singular eye, nose, or mouth makes itself known to me. The dancers could be any age or personas inhuman.

If these graceful-graceful folks were to notice me at this moment, would they accept or reject me, embrace or ostracize? I wonder. Would they tell me why I’m truly here, at this ghastly-glorious hotel, going through the motions of adulthood? An urge arises—to scream, to shatter the carefully cultivated ambiance that owns the chamber, somehow both sedate and electric—and I ignore it.

Congruent with my experience in the arcade, a perfectly polished pane of unbreakable glass seems to exist between me and the objects of my focus. I dare not, must not, approach these far-too-perfect organisms, who seem to my eyes several steps above human. I’ve got a room to visit, after all: expensive temporary lodging. Therein, a persona formidable enough to see me through the rest of this day and tomorrow, hopefully.  I’ve got—sweet, sufferin’ deity.

* * *

And so, as before, I swivel upon aching heels, and sighing, resume my stairward trek. Tomorrow’s reception will feature a dance partner of my own, a seductive sort sure to spawn sexual tension. Stranger things have happened, I assure myself, fighting tears. Perhaps an optimism transplant is in order.    

Anon, I learn that the stairwell is accessible not through any door, but through a shambolic rift in the wall. Perhaps sledgehammer-spawned, the orifice mangles paint, drywall, Acoustiblok, insulation and studs, and proves just sizable enough for me to squeeze myself through.

Shuffle-scuffling, hesitant, I fidget, vaguely back-and-forthing, stepping sidewise. Only downward can I travel. Well, these boutique hotels are quirky. There’ll be an adjoining stairwell below, maybe. By now, I’ve surely worn a rut into the landing’s carpet. I shrug, then begin my descent. Dragging my luggage down steps as they spiral dramatically, I struggle to keep my footing, envisioning a broken neck.    

After much nervous muttering, I reach the base of the stairwell, and the door that exists beyond it. Stepping forth from the shadows, into a site rendered vivid by ubiquitous LED lighting, I find myself shaking my head, attempting nullification.

* * *

I’m not really here, I assure myself.

A PA system spews background music—a pop song I’ve heard before, actually, though the lyrics seem slightly altered. Did they really just sing, “I want to tongue kiss a baby, that’s right. Won’t you be my baby tonight?” for the chorus? I wonder. What, is English this singer’s second language? Did I mishear? Such ponderings quickly slide from my consciousness, however, for I have a far more pressing concern: somehow, I’ve wandered from the hotel to a shopping mall.

A double-tiered concourse rimmed with shops, linked by interminably slow elevators and escalators, the shopping center spellbinds—with a steel-ribbed ceiling web overhead, amply bestrewn dracaenas wilting in ceramic pots around me, and strangely pliant tiling beneath my footwear. Oval-faced tables exist, chair-flanked, in an unpeopled food court, rendered pitiable by their cast iron rust and gouged woodgrain.

Though the mall encompasses one hundred acres or more, I estimate, its shoppers exist on the edge of extinction.

Wondering how such an establishment could escape financial desolation—it being situated so remotely, with only hotel guests and staff members for customers, presumably—I stride forward. Somehow, exploring this fresh development feels far less onerous than retreating, than retracing my steps back up that forlorn stairwell. I’ve a bit of time to kill, anyway. Anyway.

* * *

Did I remember to pack a wedding gift? I suddenly find myself wondering, resolving to rummage through my luggage sometime soon. If not, I’ll buy one here, a moderately priced something or other sure to score me a half-hearted thank you card in the future. Maybe I’ll gift the couple something gaudy, a silent protest against every bit of social awkwardness I’ve endured...and every bit that awaits me.

Wandering from store to store, I sight neither bakeware nor blenders, neither fondue sets nor candlesticks, neither desert plates nor wall clocks—not even a panini press. Indeed, any of the offerings I appraise, if gifted, would only amplify my own embarrassment, my self-conscious out-of-placeness, at least a thousandfold. There are limits, I quickly realize.

Peering through smudged façade glass, hesitating to make any entrances, I sight a succession of dingy, dust-swathed nowhere realms. Their each and every offering proves most distasteful.

Within one, for example, shelves constructed of cinderblocks and butterscotch oak planks exhibit ancient, cracked-leather tomes, browsed by sinister beatniks. The bohemian chic exuded by the browsers both allures and repulses. I hurry-scurry away, to avoid being.

Passing a sex shop, afore which I daren’t linger, I think to myself, Look at those terrible toys: razor wire whipping posts, sandpaper gimp suits, seventy shades of sex glue, electrified nipple clamps, even automaton genitalia. Each seems designed to induce agony. And nobody bothered to shield such sights from children. Quite contemptible.

As if summoned by my youth-centric anxieties, he arrives, as men such as him must, to accost me. Smudged with skipped washings, his sunken, half-cadaverous features target my own. His chapped lips part, loosing a triple-syllabled demand: “Con-tri-bute!”

One arm clutches a placard to the fellow’s chest. The other rattles a collection bucket, half-filled with loose bills and clinking change.

Only after escaping the man’s zealot aura do I summon up enough courage to tarry, just for a moment, to peek over my shoulder, to read the text on his placard: HELP FUND CHILD CORPSE REANIMATION!

Some sick joke. Like life itself, adds a voice in my mind that can’t possibly be mine. My rolling duffel bag grows heavier. Why not desert the thing?

Ignoring the notion—reeling onward, as one must—I stride past dimly-perceived shelves of splotched legacy clothing, and thread kiosks of leering, sloppy confectioners that seemed nonexistent moments prior. My trembling free hand bats away misshapen, outthrust candy, and comes away sticky-icky. Circumstances have shifted against me—an undeniable fact.

Whose wedding did I come here for, anyway? I’m aghast at lapsed memory. Old schoolmates, wasn’t it? What the hell’s wrong with me? Hopefully nothing that sleep won’t correct. But wasn’t I napping?

Perspiratory tides drench my clothes and febrile flesh. Fighting socially self-destructive impulses, I wonder if perhaps an exit might better be sought, an apology-eschewing return to civilization. But then, digits I recognize enter my cognizance—the numerology that had commenced such peculiarity in the first place, in fact.

Indeed, above the RFID-enhanced keycard scanner of a red, oaken door, my very own room number is displayed. This isn’t even my floor.

Deploying my keycard, I gain immediate access. As a matter of fact, the door swings itself open for me. Sighing, I gird my mind for some shuteye—forty winks, if at all possible. Unfortunately, that sigh is pushed from my throat by the woofed sonance that succeeds it, as the state of the room strikes me, weighted with absent secrets.

Neither furniture nor appliances are present, only massive, framed posters—that spell out FREE WI-FI in letters built of awkwardly-contorted people, photographed from a distance—and a rickety cart offering complementary muffins and cupcakes. Little white tiles encompass the walls and ceiling, grouted with a fungoid substance that seems to pulse, ever so slightly.

I try to hum, and then whistle, to break my own tension, but only manage to suck my arid teeth.

Well, I am getting hungry. Surprised, I find my body advancing into the room that cannot possibly be mine. Seizing a cupcake—mosaic-topped, with varicolored sprinkles—from the cart, I find myself unable to eat past its frothy chocolate frosting, which is entirely tasteless. In fact, the supposed treat hardly seems edible.

Spitting mush, the floor. I realize that a dry grittiness remains in my mouth, as if I’d been gargling sand on a dare. If only there were something to drink in this plumbing-devoid space.

Of course, I cannot remain here, even if these spartan confines are in fact those I’d paid for. Whatever else may be happening, I’m no sucker, after all. I can’t stay in a room with no bed, shower or toilet—the thought ricochets through my head. I’ll return to the hotel’s front desk and demand better accommodations.

Exiting the room unheedingly, I immediately, painfully, collide with a stranger. Biting my arid tongue, I blink away tears.

“Hey, watch where you’re goin’. I came here to shop, not for full-contact sports.”

Oh, jeez…I’m so sorry, are the words that emerge from the strange face I’m now wearing. It’s just, everything is so weird today. I started off in a hotel and ended up here, in this mall, somehow. That’s supposed to be my room, I think, but there’s nothing in there except muffins. Not even a bed or a toilet. I’m just so…freakin’…confused.

Only now do I notice that the bald fellow is shirtless—to better exhibit the myriad tattoos that encompass him, it seems. He wears just dark shorts and sandals.

Sliding over skin that might belong to one race or another, my eyes assimilate crude designs and masterfully composed motifs. I see memento mori segueing to beatific imagery, tragically deceased starlets dwelling alongside impossible beings. I see orchids, wavelets, arachnids, traced signatures, and anthropomorphized celestial objects. For the scant span of a split second, I even seem to spy my own inked doppelganger, just above the man’s belly button, before he exhales and it unravels into a sight more demonic.

Behind the fellow, his two acquaintances sneer. Suspenders over their tank tops keep baggy shorts at their waists. Masking tape mends theoretical fractures at the bridges of their Buddy Holleyesque eyewear. Modern hipster haircuts adorn each, as do mustaches waxed in curlicues. I dislike both men on sight, as they size me up, grunting.

Perhaps intrigued by my plight, the tattooed man explains, “No, you’ve got it all wrong, chum. There’s a stairwell on the other side of this mall that leads to the hotel’s fourth floor. I’m such a nice guy, such a shiny-shiny white knight, I’ll even show you where it is. Come.”

Traveling with the trio, passing by more sites of malformed commerce, I make conversation with my guide. “Well, what a coinkydink!” he says, after learning what drew me to the hotel. “I’m gettin’ married soon, too. In fact, these dudes and I just got back from my bachelor party. Matrimony, huh. Sounds just like ‘martyr money.’ Super stressful, yet rewarding, from what I’ve heard.”

Yeah, uh-huh, I mutter, somewhat less than sagaciously. Realizing that the man’s helpful affability might be a sham, a social disguise for a throat-slitting robber, I nearly shudder. Scanning my environs, I sight no security guards to holler out to, should things turn ugly.

Flanking me, the bespectacled men say nothing. Are their contemplations spiraling into realms most sinister, or am I projecting my insecurities upon strangers, yet again?

* * *

Whatever the case, I soon find myself striding into a corridor, an echoing passage between two more pointless retailers. Peering leftward, through dingy plate glass, I see shelves upon shelves of greeting cards for made-up holidays—Happy Mid-fifties Ennui Night! Hey, Hey, It’s National Daydream Day! Et cetera, et cetera. On my right, outmoded videogame equipment, eight and sixteen-bit relics I dimly recognize from my childhood, are presented as if brand spankin’ new.    

“Baby, buy big-time reverie,” one mustache man mutters beside me, almost in my ear, the first sentence that I’ve heard him say, his voice trilling like a dying sparrow. Is he talking to me?

Abruptly, my tattooed guide halts, and performs just the slightest of shivers. Every bit of poise and self-assurance that he’d possessed evaporates, all at once. “I could have sworn it was here.” He scratches the pictograms on his chin. “The stairwell that goes up to your floor, I mean.”

No door do I sight, there at the corridor’s terminus—that shadowy dead end where all sounds echo, where ceiling corner spider silk might be mistaken for crones’ funeral veils. The wall at first seems unbroken, until further scrutiny reveals the little crevice gouged therein.

“Heigh-ho!” exclaims the tattooed man, recovering his jollity. “What do we have here?” His inked forehead scrunches as he begins to forage.

Disturbed beyond measure, somehow nauseous, I flee the vicinity. In my haste, I leave my luggage behind.

* * *

Succumbing to what seems predestination, I pass retailers of nebulous purpose; their colors and shapes dwindle to perceptual confetti. My footsteps resound strangely, as if I’m fleeing through my own mind.

Is somebody calling my name? I wonder, unwilling to halt, or even slow my pace. Whose wedding did I come here for again? Jeez, what’s wrong with me? Thusly thinking, I arrive at the end of the line: a storefront whose façade letters have been subtracted, leaving reverse shadows behind, which I can’t quite read.

The establishment’s open maw inhales me, seemingly, for my legs stride me therein before I can decide whether or not that’s even a good idea. And what meets my dazed scrutiny? Nothing less than another near-empty space dressed in miniature tiles, whose interstices pulse with weird fungi.

If a product is being offered here, it can only be the shipping crate standing upright at the store’s epicenter. A strangely solemn salesclerk lurks beside it, a mortician-demeanored old sloucher dressed in a shroudish, smudged apron. His thick-eyebrowed countenance creases with tired disgust.

The man greets me: “What can I do for you, eh? Soon, this mall closes; we oughtn’t tarry.”

Sir, I need some assistance. I’m all turned around—careening madly, in fact. I came to a hotel for a wedding, and instead find myself trapped here, in the last-gasp of commerce. I can’t find my room anywhere. I toss my hands up. I mean, isn’t there someone you can call for me? Some good Samaritan to guide me where I gotta go?

Now, the salesclerk is grinning, settling his hand on my shoulder. He smells of oil and baby powder; his fingers are leaf-brittle. “I understand your plight. In fact, I’ve been there myself.” He then utters the eleven words I’d assumed I’d craved most: “Your room is right over here. It’s been awaiting your presence.”

Almost orgasmically, relief washes over me, sluicing away every ache in my musculature, every tension in my posture, every megrim that had leeched my mentality. In the unencumbered afterglow of that sensation, as the corners of my mouth both stretch earward, I offer no resistance, no hesitance, as the old man escorts me into the upright shipping crate.

Steel clips secure its last plywood panel, sealing me in total darkness. With it comes perfect silence. Even my own respiration cannot be heard.

* * *

The crate seems a bit cramped at first, just a skosh lonesome. But as the hours stretch into days, I come to decide that its proportions are perfectly fitting.

* * *

Suddenly, in my crated confines, an upheaval, a jostling! Inelegantly am I hefted and conveyed.

Hurled into the slipstream of mystery, I now travel along the dash marks of some hypothetical map. In my pitch-blackness, my womb-coffin, my perfectly sepulchral silence, I cannot help but speculate about a terminus: An amusement park? A prison? An elephant graveyard? Time passes, and I settle, upright and idling.

* * *

Scratching my bewilderment-furrowed forehead, I confess, I’m…not quite sure. The last thing I remember…I was in this strange store, feeling lost and out of sorts. But, no, that can’t be possible. I…there must be something wrong with me.

“Something wrong with you?” gasps chubby, ebullient Jocelyn, her tone saturated with faux consternation. “Well, well, well, welly, what could it be? Are you a public nudist, a bedwetter, a compulsive masturbator? Do you shout threats at the elderly, pinch babies in the worst places? Don’t just stand there. Come inside. We’ve gotta get to the bottom of this.”

The crate collapses behind me, but I ignore it.

* * *

Anon, I find myself in a living room. Sunlight filters in through gauze curtains, illuminating a soft color scheme. Floating shelves host strange curios, souvenirs of journeys I’d rather not hear of. Amidst them, baroque mirrors hang at crotch-level—maybe as some kind of joke, or perhaps social commentary. The furniture and potted plants—butterfly palms—are perched atop casters, for easy rearrangement.

Settling into the supple cushion of a rattan papasan chair, facing a sectional sofa from room corner isolation, I crack my knuckles, eyeing my interlocutors. Populating the couch upholstery, that quartet fires off a question fusillade. Responsively, I vaguely speak of a wedding.  

“A wedding?” poorly groomed, bedraggled Kent counters, with Hope, a pink-barretted twentysomething whose close-cropped black hair seems painted on, perched on his lap. “Hmmmmm. Seems that it’s been quite a while since we’ve seen one of those around these parts.”

Patting Jocelyn’s ample thigh, the lanky, awkwardly postured Frankie adds, “Everyone’s been comfortably paired off for a while now. Yes, indeed.” Only now do I notice that all four wear rings of matrimony.

Asked about my own romantic life, I can only shrug.

* * *

Into my hands, a mug of fresh coffee soon alights. My interlocutors begin to slip away, one after another, to prepare themselves for a loosely imminent excursion. For some, this necessitates showering, for others a mere clothes change. As if absorbed by my seat, I go ignored.

My beverage imbibed, I find myself staring into the tarnished gleam of the mug’s filmy shallowness, feeling as if I should be grateful for something, probably. A pondering strikes me: Am I living in a narrative ouroboros, eternally spiraling up its own ending? Does the fifth wheel role suit me perfectly, well ingrained by awkward decades? Why don’t I excuse myself, at this very moment, to journey to the address on my driver’s license, where I surely reside?

* * *

Unto a concourse that unveils double-stacked levels of storefronts we travel. A strangely beguiling, steel-ribbed ceiling web seems to hover over everything.

Before I can properly scrutinize my surroundings, an exhausted father steals my focus. Balding and perspiring, he is flanked by two grade-schoolers: a girl and a boy.

The man pushes a cart, one filled with strange items. They have shopping carts here, I marvel, even as the poor fellow’s loins-spawn begin issuing their demands. “I want platinum grubs,” says the boy, his porcine countenance squeezed into an expression that assumes itself crafty, “and inaction figures, life-size!”

His sister, his equal in avariciousness, yelps, “Guhloozas, spore dollies, battle taffy, and thither cones! I want all of ’em, Daddy! Before we leave! Sooner!”

Refusing to meet either of their predacious eye pairs, what remains of their father stares straight ahead, seeing nothing. His autonomic reply to each fresh demand: “Whatever you want, sweetheart.” Melancholia knows this man’s psyche, has in fact dwelt there often. Ensnared in the role of fatherhood, his fight or flight response disabled, goes he.

The three exit my sightline, and I shiver, relieved.

* * *

My companions are emboldened with purpose now, apparently. Without pausing to appraise other storefronts, they commence a steady-step migration toward an unmentioned retail space.

Everything is so perfectly presented, I decide, considering the stores in toto. Scrubbed dustless, freshly painted, every product oh-so-frickin’-buyable. Where do I fit in?

Only one component mars my overall appraisal: the shirtless, tattooed fellow leaning over the second floor railing, twisting the lid from an invisible mason jar, leering as if he knows me. Were everything not so urgent, I might halt my steps, so as to holler up at him, What do you want from me?

But then I’d lose sight of my companions, who are already a struggle to keep up with. The concourse is too crowded, overstuffed with the resolute and the purposeless, the striding and the immobile.

* * *

Moments later, like magic, my four “friends” file their way into the rectilinear maw of what can only be their destination. No appellation adorns the storefront, I realize. Perhaps the retail space is nameless.

Reeling as if my shadow has grown weighted, I achieve an entrance. So harsh is the overhead lighting in the small store—a mercantile cove, really—it seems that hundreds of spotlights have latched their scorching, empty grasps upon me.

As a matter of fact, as I properly register that which surrounds me—the pallid, smooth personages I’d mistaken for a customer cluster—the notion of one laugh or another being had at my expense seems most likely. Mannequins dressed in wedding wear, remarks a voice in my head. Tuxedos and gowns…more shades than imaginable.

Dreams breeching my consciousness, all exist to beguile me, it seems. Locked in a frozen toast, they hoist real-life mimosas with dainty, fiberglass grippers.

* * *

With no farewells to the mimosa slurpers—Hope, Jocelyn, Kent and Frankie, I remind myself—as they address me with dwindling entreaties, in fact sparing the quartet no second glances, I retreat.

“It seems that we lost you. Follow me. Your room’s long past ready.” The guest services representative, with her azure eyes and Hopsack blazer, has arrived to occupy my entire focus; all else blurs into peripheral fuzz. Threading clusters of hardly-living nonentities, bypassing frivolous realms of hollow paraphernalia, I find myself without questions to ask.

Thusly muted, I reach a between-store corridor. It terminates at a door, beyond which lies a stairwell.

Intricately patterned is the carpet beneath my feet now, nearly filigreed, as I ascend steps. Beside me, at my exact height, possessing my exact girth, my shadow swings its arms. Close, yet unreachable—no-nonsense, untiring—my guide leads the way.

* * *

Finally, the labor force ne plus ultra pauses at the fourth floor landing, to open a fresh door afore me, the perfect gentlewoman. “Room 406, I believe,” the guest services representative remarks, pressing a bit of chilled flatness to my palm. “Here’s the keycard you dropped. See you soon.”

Returning to the stairwell, she leaves me all alone, all agog. I seem to remember booking a room once, though my reasons for doing so now escape me. My pool of memory has grown shallow.

The trail of oaken, red doors seems unending, eternal. Still I stumble forth, careful lest I trip, to arrive at a certain, special entranceway, which flaunts three fateful digits: 406.

Soundlessly, my keycard communicates with the RFID-equipped scanner. After the briefest of hesitations, I push the door open.

And what meets my startled-wide eyes, halts my advance at the threshold? What sheens me in terror sweat and sends my heart racing?

Well, for one thing, every piece of furniture or appliance that I might’ve wished to utilize—king-size bed, working desk, dresser, television, minibar and Keurig—is utterly mangled. Shattered and shredded, their fragments exist as garbage confetti ringing the room’s inner perimeter, an anti-halo.

Such devastation only sullies my psyche for mere moments, however. Far worse exists to be scrutinized—right there, right in front of me. Inevitably, my gaze reaches the room’s epicenter, and locks onto the strange atrocity that transpires there.

A skeletal, nearly human organism writhes upon the begrimed flooring, its chameleonesque physique hardly distinguishable from the blood swastika that it’s pinned to and the teeth-studded black candles that encircle it.

By the infernal light of those votives, I discern the shadow-creased forms of the creature’s tormenters. Their clothing and demeanors identify them as hotel employees.

In a ring of held hands, their fingers entwined, they sluggishly rotate around the strange sufferer, chanting, “We, who should not exist and therefore don’t…we, songs that feel as if we’ve only just commenced as we cease…we, thoughts some ‘They’ put in your head, have escaped, here contained.”

Responsively, in squirming agony, their sacrifice howls a negative sonance that eclipses all others.  

My initial shock abates; some slight measure of self-determination returns to me. Ergo, I hyper-swivel on my heels and flee back to the stairwell.

Its purpose fulfilled, a door clangs shut behind me. I hesitate on the landing, madly cogitating: Up or down, never through.

* * *

Ascending, descending, footfalls louden to deafening, converging upon my own distraught self. With them arrive faces so stern, attached to postures most tense, all wearing FBI jackets.

Aiming MP5/10 submachine guns at my torso and skull, the agents bark questions I can’t answer and speak names I’ve never heard.

Volleying queries of my own, I learn that these men and women are part of a task force, one investigating a group of missing people, all of whom graduated from the same high school, the same year.

The last name that they utter, I recognize.

* * *

I blink twice, and the FBI agents have become mannequins, their weapons still pointed at me, their frozen faces yet stern. With another four blinks, they have vanished, as if merely imagined.

Again, solitude enfolds me, never escapable for long.

* * *

The hotel—and all the structures that adjoin it, that grandly infernal complex—begins to compress. Creaking with the reverse birth pangs of damnation, countless floors, myriad rooms, squeeze together to inhibit me.

The stairwell landing is absorbed, and I find myself boxed in. Statue-still, I now stand, within a singular space of cramped dimensions.

Somehow it grows yet more comfortable.

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Jeremy Thompson

@ReadJThompson