Too Much of the Wrong Thing
You had that feeling of forgetting something again. It struck you when trying to find a seat on the plane. That panicky feeling, sifting through all the filters in your mind for what that missing thing could be, coming up empty. You probably didn’t forget anything; you’ll just always be missing something you can’t name.
It was difficult to leave. Your room framed the trees outside in full arabesque. Living in a hotel is sad but comforting. You love the feeling of uninhabited living spaces. The rooms are too blank to be a real home in their purgatorial, uncluttered way. Everyone lives there and no one lives there.
You didn’t want anyone to sit next to you on the plane. You didn’t want to explain that you were traveling to St. Louis for a routine eye exam. That’s the kind of thing people use as an excuse for dismissing you. You didn’t want to talk about your irrelevant town that is small and hollowed out, not sure how to come alive without reliving the past, paralyzed by its bountiful history. The only thing it has and the only thing holding it back.
A middle aged woman ended up sitting next to you. She reminded you of one of your teachers from high school. The teacher who played clips from Dead Poets Society, her taciturn admittal that the only way to inspire students was to learn from a teacher other than herself. One that was fictional was decidedly best.
The woman sitting next to you was manic in her conversation. It was almost more relieving than silence because her speech was so constant you knew you would never have to speak. Mydaughterisincollegeandsheonlyneedsfifteenmorecreditstograduateearly--
You felt like a banana on its tremulous journey home in a flimsy grocery bag. The chime on the door was piercing, the printer in the waiting room volcanic. A labeled chart of the eyeball was framed on the wall. It was shaded and color coded and it looked like a newly discovered planet. You waited. You wondered why people didn’t say they were ‘just feeling things’ the way that they said they were ‘just seeing things.’
You tried to be patient: it was a waiting room. The chair seemed skeletal, like it was an extra backbone in that it was rather sharp and uncomfortable but you needed it for support. The air was humid with the sighs of others, fetid with the presence of so many bodies passing through.
You thought about the second grade. Your eyes were still growing and changing shape. You would visit the eye doctor just when you had gotten used to not seeing very well. The blurriness would sneak up on you. With your new prescription, the clouds were so crisp and defined, the leaves so veiny and precise, that it all seemed false.
That same year, your teacher made up an exercise about understanding blindness. He asked everyone what blind people see. What does nothingness look like? Blackness? Whiteness? No one had a satisfying answer. You imagined asking the question to a person who was born with sight and had gone blind. Maybe the imaginary person looked a little like Stevie Wonder, your favorite artist who happened to be blind. What does nothingness look like? you asked this imaginary blind person wearing sunglasses. You waited for the answer, staring at your reflection in their dark lenses.
Then the front desk person was calling your name and leading you down a hallway, asking you questions that you thought were unnecessary and unrelated to your eye health.
When you met him, you treated him as any other guest. Because he was, at least at that point. You were covering the front desk because you had let people go the week before. It was right after you had tried your first night shift and you think it showed.
He strolled up, this dumpy man with this tall, gorgeous woman. The difference between them was almost comical. The woman held a leash that was clipped to a stately greyhound. He was surrounded by giants.
The woman and the dog were rather stunning and you found it challenging to focus on the man trying to meet your eyes. When yours irresolutely floated over to his, you noticed that a little sliver of his iris was missing, like someone had carved out a crescent of it. Bald and bold, he shook your hand. Or maybe he didn’t shake your hand and it just felt like he did. You gave them keys to one of the pet-friendly rooms away from the elevator and watched the dog saunter away languorously.
The second time you saw him, the first time you really met him, was at your hotel bar. You were covering a bartending shift. You were embarrassed. You thought it looked like you were the only employee in this hotel. You basically were now. A person with an ice sculpting business was having a conversation with a locksmith. You thought how incredibly useful one’s profession was in comparison to the other’s.
My dog never liked her anyway, the ice sculptor was saying.
The man approached the bar and chose a seat near the middle. He had his pick; the other two were the only ones at the bar. He ordered a whiskey, neat, and kept his eyes fixed on you.
What brings you here, you asked, looking down at the empty glass in your hand.
My wife is speaking at an infectious disease conference, he said.
His wife would later add a PhD to her MD, studying the sociological effects of infectious disease. How major diseases reveal people’s coping mechanisms: some people hearing news updates three or four times a day and immediately forgetting, others obsessed and paranoid to the point of illogical precautions, perseverating on the history and growth of the disease. After her dissertation was approved, his wife’s brain would then quickly fade like a dying star, its energy wildly spent and ready to stop.
Is the conference downtown? you asked. You handed him the drink.
Yes. At the convention center, he said.
Then what are you doing all the way out here? you asked. It sounded more accusatory than you would have liked.
I wanted to meet you, he said.
The guys at the end of the bar were still occupying each other with full glasses of beer, so you leaned in and asked, What do you mean? You thought maybe he was trying to pick you up, that the beautiful wife was a cover.
I was your uncle at one time. I was married to your aunt. Your father’s sister, he said.
You thought of Aunt Maureen: the adventurous one in the family. She lived in Denver and used mineral-based makeup. She made her own scarves and sold them at the market. You saw her every eight years or so. She had been married approximately four times.
So you’re Mitchell? Or Steve? you asked.
Yes. Your Uncle Mitchell, I suppose. She got rid of me quick, he said, taking a sip.
It seems like you’ve done pretty well for yourself without her, I said. It was nice that it happened to be true.
I got lucky, he said.
You found out that he was an ophthalmologist, and when people called him an optometrist he corrected them by talking through his teeth. You also found out that he and his wife met as neighbors. She was half Korean and rather strict about people taking off their shoes at the front entrance. He knocked on her door one night and had to deliver the news that her cat was dead while looking at his wormy toes wiggling in his Gold Toe socks.
He was so flippant with all the details of his life that you felt you needed to reciprocate. You told him about the dying town that was making your hotel a dying hotel. You told him about how sometimes people leave interesting things in their rooms. Old guitars, a car door, sombreros, those inflatable neon stick figures that dance in the wind in front of stores. Things that stood for other things. You told him that often people accidentally leave little wads of powdery bills stuffed between the mattress and the box spring, that when things were slow, sometimes you checked before the maids came in, just in case.
It was only much later, in the middle of the night, when you realized what he was going to do. You had shared too much. Or maybe you had just shared too much of the wrong thing. You had sounded rather pitiful, you noticed too late. He could smell that you had no fallback plan.
When they checked out early the next morning, you found yourself in their room though you don’t remember walking there. It was all there, enough to start over, or renovate the hotel, or move it closer to downtown, or just piss money away for a good long while. You weren’t surprised but you wondered if he always carried that much cash around. If he already knew what he was going to do before he got here. He didn’t have kids and he had plenty of means, you tried to justify. But it all felt utterly ridiculous.
He smiled at you and led you to the chair like you were just another patient. He inspected your eyes. You thought about how close his face gets to another person’s face every day, several times a day. How intimate it would seem but how vacant it really was.
You’re nearsighted, he said.
That’s not the first time someone’s accused me of that, you said.
You thought you should thank him or hug him or bring him a nice bottle of wine but nothing seemed right. Nothing seemed appropriate.
At the hotel bar, he had talked about retirement. He said he thought about it as death, that he always wanted to stay occupied and useful for as long as possible. You thought about how comfortable you were with relaxing. You could lay on the couch all day and it would feel nothing but pleasant. If you retired, you would just sit at a diner until close, watching people eat too fast and waitresses fill and refill coffees. You felt that being surrounded by the bustle would be enough.