No 7 - 2007
The guest in 3214 has rearranged the furniture, positioning one of the leather armchairs so he has an unhindered view of the harbour, the planes rising and falling into Newark; their flickering wing lights the closest things to stars this side of the state border. Martha would like to show him, how if you place your cheek flat against the cold glass you can just make out the tiny night-light of Liberty’s torch, and if you squint a little harder, the Staten Island ferry steadily ploughing the black river.
Most visitors have a morbid curiosity for what’s missing from the landscape. They spend too much time examining the photos of what it was like before and of the architects’ vision for the future, to take in the beauty of what it is now.
She notices the still corked bottle of champagne in its bucket of melted ice, the jilted flutes, as she brings the tray with its pot of coffee towards the displaced table. It’s well broadcast that the hotel lays on complimentary fizzy for special occasions. Thanks to Expedia and Trip Advisor they’ve hosted far more than their fair share of birthday celebrations. This one’s meant to be an anniversary; according to the welcome letter she typed out earlier. But there’s no sign of a wife, just the one unpacked holdall on the floor. A dent on the left hand side of the bed where he must have laid down to watch the now mute TV tuned to CNN: the latest car bomb casualties being stretchered down a Baghdad street. Maybe she hasn’t arrived yet, the wife or more likely mistress. Delayed in a foreign airport, lost hours no time zone jump can refund.
“I sign here?” he asks, his accent East European. She tries to read him as he bends into the glare of the desk lamp. A proud profile, she thinks, his nose and chin sharp angles to the full lips.
He half-smiles, holding out the check. There’s a rawness about his eyes. Sadness or just plain tiredness, she’s not sure. A slight nervousness too, or perhaps embarrassment at being alone in the room with a strange woman. Maybe he’s been sat in the dark fantasising about undressing his lover in the phosphorescent glow of Manhattan on standby. His hands caressing hard nipples through silk slip. The salt of her throat on his tongue. It’s been a long time since anyone held Martha.
Misreading her hesitation, the man reaches into his pocket, pulls a ten-dollar bill from his wallet.
“Oh no, there’s no need sir, service charge is included.” She flusters with the check, her hot cheeks betraying her mortification.
He persuades the money into her hand. “You would like this?” he gestures towards the champagne.
“No, no thank you. I couldn’t.” And she means it. Aside from the fact that she’d technically be accepting hotel property, a sackable offence, there’d be no joy in benefiting from someone else’s thwarted celebration.
“Please, take it away.” There’s a definite strain in his voice now, the effort to communicate beyond him.
The bucket feels heavy. She tries to hold it steady, not wanting to slop water in the carpeted lift.
“Tea-totallers huh?” Nico, the assistant night chef, catches her replacing the bottle in the refrigerated store.
“Could be. Supposed to be an anniversary in 3214 but there’s no wife.”
“Sounds like my kind of anniversary: night without the wife.” Then with an exaggerated frown, he whispers,“You think they had a row, Babe? Think he pushed her off a bridge? Maybe we should call the cops?”
“Don’t even joke about it.” She can’t resist a smile though. Nico always manages to cheer her up. Calls her Babe or Girl even though she must have a good decade on him.
She makes herself a coffee and examines the breakfast orders. Nothing for 3214. She checks reservations, definitely a Mr and Mrs. Special requests: non-smoking, Hudson view, anniversary. No mistake.
Maybe it’s a would-have-been anniversary. Would have been but for divorce or worse. She’s been there. Her last would-have-been, she took the aerial tram out to Roosevelt, sat on the promenade mesmerised by the pearly light of the Chrysler building. It’s where Frank proposed. He’d just been offered his first teaching post at the University. He couldn’t believe his luck – the chance to live in Manhattan! Coffee houses stayed open past midnight. People queued round the block for cup cakes. Every street name was the line from a song or a poem. His seduction was infectious. Martha didn’t hesitate: yes to Frank, yes to New York.
After the baby, Frank started talking about moving back to North Dakota: a horizon you can walk into; a better environment for raising kids. But Martha was bound to both the man and the city. They eventually compromised on the suburbs, their own fenced yard, but she still missed that one-bed apartment where they’d spent so many sleep-broken nights, the toddling walks to the deli, hanging out in the square trading small talk with the other mothers and dog walkers.
“Earth to Martha, are you receiving me?” Nico plonks a tray on the counter next to her. “Room 2028.”
She has to knock three times on the door to get any attention. A bleary-eyed young woman eventually opens up. Another girl is stretched out on the bed watching a music channel. Barely out of adolescence, the pair of them. Jonathan’s age.
She wonders how they can afford to stay here. Someone should have warned them against 5am pizza. If you can call it pizza, more like cheese coronary on cardboard. Plays havoc with your digestion.
The young woman studies the bill, no doubt horrified by all the added tax and service charge. They’d have been better off squandering their money on an extra cocktail.
“Just sign here,” she helps out. Martha’s tempted to screw up the check on the way down but it would be pointless, the twenty-odd dollars will have already been charged to their account. Along with the juice and nuts from the mini-bar, which has a built in sensor wired up to the computer.
Maybe, like Frank claimed, it’s part of the whole package, being ripped off. But Martha can’t buy into that. Refuses to see the wider canvas of an injustice.
“I need to move on,” Frank had told her. “I can’t breathe in this city. It’s too full of grief. It’s suffocating me.” He’d meant Martha of course; she was suffocating him.
There’s a breakfast order waiting for her. Beats her how anyone can eat eggs and grits this early in the morning. For the first six months, she had trouble eating any time of day. She refused to leave the house in case Jonathan phoned. Evenings she’d check the wardrobe, making sure he had a clean shirt for the morning.
“It’s not normal for chrissakes!” Frank persuaded the doctor to make a house call. The doctor referred her to a grief counsellor. She was stalled in stage one of the recovery process. A better place than where Frank was, she thought. There was so much anger in him then. No one was safe from his stray fire. Not the government who should have seen it coming, not the pilots who should have paid more attention to Bruce Willis, not the teachers who’d failed to convince Jonathan of the benefits of a college education, not their neighbour Ryan for putting in a good word for him at the office, and especially not Martha, who’d refused to move out to the country before the pressures of High School kicked in.
A man in a complimentary bathrobe answers the door. It’s several sizes too small for him and she’s worried about the looseness of the belt. He doesn’t appear to be wearing anything underneath. He wouldn’t be the first to suggest a little extra service on the side. Martha stares diligently out of the window while he clears a space on the table. The first flush of dawn light warming the sky.
“Long night?” he asks.
“Yeah, you could say that.” She must look dead on her feet. She’s done a twelve-hour shift and then some.
“For me too,” he confides. “Body clock’s still on UK time.”
He looks pretty fresh-faced for someone who’s not slept. Handsome despite his extra pounds.
“Here on business?”
“Mainly. Three day conference starting Monday, but I’m planning a spot of sightseeing today.”
“This your first visit to New York?”
“First visit with a credit card I can call my own,” he laughs. A boyish laugh.
He adds a five-dollar tip to the check. Maybe she’s misjudged him. “Enjoy your stay Sir.”
“Got yourself a fan up there.” Nico’s brandishing a bottle of ketchup at her as she comes through the swing doors. “Needs some of this, asked for you personally.”
“Great. His breakfast will be cold by the time I get there.”
The English guy has an ulterior motive. Wants to know what time she clocks off. Whether she fancies being a tour guide for the day. She declines the offer, claiming she has too much on.
Nico of course finds it amusing. “You should set up your own company, Martha’s Escort Agency.”
“But seriously, would it do you any harm to go on a date? This guy a catch?”
“Not my type.” Not that she has a type. Frank’s the only man she’s ever had a serious relationship with.
“So what have you got on today?”
“Oh the usual; chores, TV.” But she doesn’t want to go home to an empty apartment. Maybe she’ll go up town, treat herself to breakfast at the Central. Then on to the City Library. Cold day like today, the Reading Room will be full. There’s something soothing about the company of strangers: the charged atmosphere of all that concentrated thought. “What about you Nico, got any plans?”
“Me, I’m going home for a couple of hours shut-eye, then I promised to take the kids to the Wollman.”
“Skating. I haven’t been for years. Not since Jonathan…”
“You could come with us.”
“No, I couldn’t. I’m a terrible skater.”
“Who isn’t? C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
“Thanks, but no. I really do have things to do.”
“Well, we’ll be there three-ish if you change your mind.”
The rest of the shift, Martha thinks about all the places she’s been robbed of. Places she still can’t bring herself to visit. Central Park, the Natural History Museum, the botanical gardens, Coney Island. The places they used to spend Sundays before Jonathan declared them all too boring.
Frank had thought her crazy to take this job. An hour’s bus and subway ride each way. If she wanted to wait on, there were plenty of restaurants closer to home. But she wanted to be near Jonathan.
Jonathan wasn’t there, he’d shouted. It wasn’t Jonathan she couldn’t give up on, it was the pain. She was addicted to it, needed her daily fix. She was too afraid to let it dull. Afraid and guilty of a future without him.
Nico’s out of his uniform, chatting to the newly arrived morning staff, when Martha gets back from her next order. “Hey, happy ending in 3214. Mystery man just rang down – continental for two.”
“Yeah. Want to go check it out – last knock?”
It’s going to feel a little awkward going back into that room, but she’s too curious to let the opportunity pass. “Sure.”
Martha’s first knock is too tentative. She takes a deep breath – goes for assertive with her second try, calls out,“Room Service.”
A woman opens the door. She’s midway through towelling her hair, long dark shanks of it. Martha follows her into the room. No man on the bed but there’s the oboe of hot water screeching through pipes.
The woman is wearing a turquoise kimono; a satiny material that cascades down her body, over the ridge of breasts, the magnificent overhang of pregnant belly.
Martha feels a sympathetic kick in her own womb, has to swallow a breathless,“Oh.” Her hands are trembling as she lowers the finely balanced tray of coffee, juice and pastries. “How soon?” The question pushing the boundary of room service etiquette.
“Month to go,” the woman beams, smoothing her free hand over her stomach. “Thank Christ. Be such a relief to repossess my body.”
Martha knows the lie in that; how even when she holds the mewling baby in her arms, she’ll feel a solid absence.
“You got any kids?”
“Just the one, a boy.” Martha can’t bring herself to use the past tense. Not with this woman who doesn’t yet know the colour of her baby’s hair, if it will inherit its father’s old world melancholy or her own lust for life.
“Roman’s hoping for a girl, reckons they’re less work. I’m easy.” She looks down,“So long as you’re happy.”
“That’s all that matters,” Martha agrees.
Alone in the staff room, Martha smiles at the photo of Jonathan taped to her locker door. He’s wearing a layer of T-shirts that make him look more substantial than his slight frame. She’d persuaded him to take off his beanie, and the sun has made bronze highlights of his front curls. His eyes are focused on something beyond her, refusing to look directly into the camera. You can still see the boy in him and the man he would have become.
If he was here now, he’d ask,“What’s the problem Mom? Go to the god damned ice rink, why don’t you?”
Well, maybe she will. Just to watch. And maybe later she’ll phone Frank. Ask after his new wife and daughter.
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