The tears came at the oddest times, it seemed. He had spent so much time in quiet introspection these past weeks, mentally retracing sixteen years worth of footsteps. At those times, when a good cleansing would seem appropriate, it didn’t come. But now, here, as he dragged in the last of his baggage and closed the room door behind him, his eyes fell upon the sign reading “Emergency Escape Plan” and his legs buckled and he sat on the corner of the bed to collect himself.
He normally looked forward to the act of moving in to a hotel room. Inspecting the drawers and shelves and determining what would fit where. Separating his packed possessions into logical units and compartmentalizing them for efficient access. He’d been a compulsive organizer for most of his life. In fourth grade, his teacher would scold him for taking too long to start an assignment because he spent so much time positioning his materials on the desk: pencil box across the top edge of the desk for easy access, plastic ruler lined up neatly along the right side, with his pencil nested in the ruler’s grooved center depression, so it wouldn’t roll off the desk, and any other required tools like protractor and circle gauge positioned neatly on the left. Then he’d make sure that each item was evenly spaced from the desk’s edge, sometimes using the ruler and pencil to draw small guide lines on the desk surface. At some point Mrs. Hurley would tap him on the shoulder and point out that the rest of the class had completed the assignment already. At parent-teacher conferences she’d tell his parents that he was a procrastinator.
He paused to look at himself in the mirror. A fat, tired face with red eyes and great windblown gaps in his hair that exposed far too much of his thinning scalp. “Look out, ladies,” he muttered under his breath.
He looked across the room at the empty recliner and his mind served up an old Neil Diamond lyric that he’d always thought incredibly stupid. It suddenly seemed significant and profound and it made him momentarily question his sanity.
He was alone. No problem. He liked being alone. So did she. Two solitary people who had somehow managed to build a life together. It was many years before he realized how different they actually were. She craved solitude. Reveled in it. Was recharged by it. He liked being alone together. Keeping to himself but knowing that she was right there in the next room. Like a toy that you keep in the closet until you want to play with it, she had pointed out, coldly but correctly.
He set to work unpacking his things. Clothes hung on the rack. Underwear and socks in the drawer. Toiletries in the bathroom. Distributing the components of this miniature version of his life that he had brought along with him. The task gave him something to focus on, make the time pass more quickly.
Deciding what to bring had been hard, very hard. Ranking his possessions in terms of importance. Making sure he hadn’t forgotten anything crucial, taking something for granted because it was always there.
He wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
He stared at the empty bed for a time. Then he pulled the pillows out from under the bedspread and arranged two of them lengthwise on the left side of the bed, folding the bedspread over them. He lay down tentatively on the right, felt the mounded bedclothes against his side. It would help him sleep.
This is where I need to be right now, he thought, staring up at the ceiling. Hotels are for travelers, and the end of the journey isn’t always in sight. At some point his destination would become clear. Until then, he would be here, watching and waiting and punishing himself with his thoughts.
He closed his eyes and he could see her smiling at him, with a welcome look in her eyes that he hadn’t seen for so long. She brushed the hair from his face and kissed him on the forehead, stroked his cheek with her fingers. It’s okay, she said, the nightmare is over, and he looked around and saw that he was home and in her arms and the crushing weight lifted from his chest and he could breathe again. He reached for her, to cradle her face in his hands, and his fingers met cold cloth and he woke with a start.
The evening was blustery and raw, and rain spattered the hotel window. He stared fixedly past the rain to the gathering darkness. It was a long time before sleep gradually began to overtake him again, and his stinging eyes slowly lost their focus. The droplets streaked down the glass, and it became hard to tell if they were outside or inside.