When the bellhop opens the hotel room door, coolness rushes out to the dimly lit hall. Samina and Jerry quickly step inside the room, and the bellhop follows, pulling the door shut behind them. In that first moment Samina laughs—at the relief of it, the way the cold air slaps her skin. The bellhop hesitates for just the briefest moment before he goes, returning to what now seems the oppressive closeness of the hall. As soon as he is gone, Samina throws herself on the bed like a child, arms spread wide. The springs on the mattress are good; her body bounces before settling. Jerry smiles, then lies beside her. Side by side they gulp at the soft, filtered air. Jerry has a flash of memory—an image of drinking icy, clear water from a green hose when he was a kid.
He turns to his wife, “What do you think?”
Samina lies on the thick, white comforter, moving only her eyes in her head, taking it all in—the wall-to-wall carpet printed with a chain link design, the dark wood desk in one corner, the wing-backed chair in another. Jerry has told her that the furniture was designed to look old-fashioned even when it was new, how people used to come from other cities and stay in places like this for an entire night or even longer. “It’s lovely,” she says, her voice too loud in the room. She sits up and says it again, getting used to the unfamiliar quiet, “It’s so lovely.” Jerry had questioned his choosing of this place, unsure of his own reasons, but he feels glad he has brought her here.
Samina goes to the window. The curtain, like the cover on the bed, is audaciously white—a gauzy fabric that lets in the light but blocks the view. She pushes it aside to examine the thick, plexi-glass pane that muffles the sounds of the city. The glass, when she places her hand on it, is warm. Buildings across the way undulate in the heat. The world below ripples like a brown puddle.
A knock sounds at the door. She lets the curtain drop. Too soon. They both think it. It shouldn’t be time yet.
A voice outside the door calls, “Room service,” and Jerry emits a short, appreciative laugh like he does when something resembles the old days.
Jerry says, “Come.”
A woman pushes a small cart through the door. Though she cannot legally be hotel staff, she wears the burgundy blazer, which is nice. A white cloth enshrouds the cart, and atop it two stemmed glasses brim with a sparkling liquid—Champagne, the option Samina watched Jerry tick on a card upon check-in. The woman nods to the glass on the right. Jerry picks it up and moves it to the table on his side of the bed, and the mood in the room seems at once darker. But then the woman removes a metal cover from a plate, revealing real fruit: a small apple and a strawberry. “Compliments of the house,” she says. Samina barely notices her leaving, so entranced is she with the perfection of the apple.
“You should take it,” says Jerry.
“I couldn’t,” she says, and she blushes, pulling her eyes away from it.
“Of course you could. Really, a strawberry is the classic accompaniment for champagne. I’ll have the strawberry, and the pleasure of seeing you enjoy the apple. It’s what I want.”
When he says what he wants there can be no argument, not today.
“Okay,” she says, and aware of him watching, she puts the apple to her lips. The first bite, tart and sweet, brings tears to her eyes.
Jerry puts the strawberry in his mouth whole and chews slowly. It is not the best strawberry he has ever eaten—its flesh is mealy and not overly sweet—but in it lives the memory of all other strawberries and he is grateful for it. He is grateful for the roughness of the tiny seeds against his tongue and the roof of his mouth. It is a pleasure. It has all been a pleasure, and he refuses to regret his decisions.
When he reaches for the flute of champagne, Samina says, “wait!” her voice loud again, panic in her tone.
“It’s okay,” he says, “It won’t take effect quickly.”
Still she resists, withholding permission with her eyes.
“We only have an hour…” He doesn’t have to say what they both know—that at the end of the allotted time his body will be taken whether or not his soul has departed from it.
After a long moment, she nods her agreement. She picks up her glass, controls the tremble in her lip, and says, “To fairer weather.”
It is the only toast she knows, and is as good as any. He echoes her words, “To fairer weather for you, my dear.”
Her surprised little cough at the carbonation makes him smile. He is struck, for the thousandth time, by how young she can seem. Then he is sobered, also for the thousandth time, by the knowledge that age won’t change her inexperience with such novelties, they will be so seldom offered. Fortunately, Samina has the ability of finding joy in the smallest luxuries without resenting their absence. It is a great gift, and one she has shared it with him these last few years. He’s lucky to have had her. He does not regret.
With that thought, he tips his glass to his lips. At first he does not detect the acrid undertone, but when it hits him he loses all philosophy and is overtaken by instinct—an adrenaline-filled urge to run from the room, from the hotel, to careen through the streets to the city’s edge. He imagines leaping the walls in a single bound or bursting through the long-closed gates.
Even in his imagination though, his great escape leads only to the desert.
He did not choose the desert when he could, he would not choose it now. He made his deal and he will abide by it. He drinks again, accepting the liquid’s bitter component. When he sets the glass down it is empty.
He takes slow and deep breaths until the alcohol takes the edge off, Samina watching with a kind of veiled terror in her eyes.
He smiles to show her he’s okay, leans against the headboard and lifts his arm, inviting her to nestle in. She does, resting her head near his collarbone. Just before the silence becomes too long, she asks, “What did you do, when you came here before?”
Though it isn’t punishable, his generation is discouraged from talking too much about the before days as it is generally felt to stir needless discontent. But that is not Jerry’s only consideration today.
“Were you with your wife?”
He has to smile at how Samina has learned to read him. He looks at her, evaluating. She has friends who don’t like to hear about their predecessors, but in truth she has never seemed to mind. When Jerry talks about his first life, she listens in the same way she might hear a tale from an old book, or recall the movie she’d seen as a child that had overwhelmed her with its scenes of people sitting on huge expanses of green grass without a patch of brown.
“Yes, I was with Beth,” Jerry finally answers, then pauses. She runs her hand lightly along the hairs on his arm in the way that she does, and he feels it’s okay. “It was summer and it had been hot for weeks, very hot—not like it is now, but almost. We weren’t used to it, you know”—she nods that she does know—“so it seemed more extreme. And back then, it was common to have climate control, in shopping malls and movies theaters and even in homes, but we lived in an older-style house that didn’t have it.”
“Was this when you were poor?” Jerry had let slip this phrase once and Samina latched on to it. She loves the idea that he and Beth had once been poor and that over time had become less poor—wealthy in fact. He’d mentioned it only in passing—referring to the time early in their marriage before Beth had been promoted and one of his scripts had finally sold. As soon as it left his mouth, poor, it had seemed ludicrous, embarrassing, but trying to backtrack and explain has proved of little use, then, and since. Though it doesn’t really matter, he makes a last attempt to reframe it for his own conscience. “Well, relative to some people we knew, and relative to later, we sometimes felt poor.”
“You were poor.” Her voice says the matter is settled, and he accepts it.
“The days were okay, because we both worked in offices that had air-conditioning, but when we came home in the evenings, the place was sweltering. The neighbors were doing some kind of construction and we couldn’t open the windows for all the dust, so with the sun shining in all day and no ventilation— ”
He pauses—as with the money situation, he feels the acute ridiculousness of complaining about the heat, but Samina looks up at him, engaged, waiting only for the story, so he continues. “Anyway, it was hot. We pointed our little fan directly at the bed, and sometimes we’d douse ourselves with rubbing alcohol just to feel the evaporation. And then, in the middle of the heat wave—” for a moment he wants to skip the next part, but it will be too difficult to shape the story without it, and it strikes him also that his words are limited now; he wants them to be truthful, to do the past justice: “Beth had gone to the doctor for tests. They’d found something in her uterus.”
“Was it…the cancer?”
He almost laughs at the dramatic way she says the word. Cancer. It no longer exists, but the myth of it has seeped through the unofficial filter between past and present. Like her friends, Samina is fascinated by the idea of a disease that could erupt inside someone like an unpredictable storm.
“Yes. The doctors had found it, and we knew she had to have surgery, but we didn’t know exactly when, or what it would entail. There were always so many questions… but my point is that there were a few reasons we wanted to get away, but we didn’t have the time or money to leave the city—”
“Because you were poor.”
“Sure.” He gazes at her, loving her for her stubbornness. “We were poor, but not too poor to travel across town, so we came here. To this hotel.”
The champagne is making him a little fuzzy around the edges. He remembers feeling this way. A little fuzzy, a little buzzy. Remembers lying on the bed with Beth, both of them tipsy, circling their hands like birds in the air above their heads. It is a good memory, long forgotten, and he welcomes it now—until a gust of panic blows through him, born of a traitorous thought: That he should have followed her through the gates when they were open. That this is not his right destiny.
“And then what?” Samina’s whisper in his ear demands that he not fade yet. He wills the room back into focus. He pushes ugly doubt down and admonishes himself, too late now.
“We checked in, in the afternoon, just like you and I did, and came upstairs to a room like this one.” He wonders if it could have been the exact room they are in. “The bed was big like this one. They’re called California Kings.”
“And was it cold like this?”
“Maybe even colder. I cranked up the air-conditioner until Beth complained she had to crawl under the covers. And we probably took two showers apiece, one when we arrived, and another when we come back after dinner.”
He feels a pang of guilt at Samina’s look of amazement. This is why they are warned against speaking too much about the old days. The history has already been agreed upon—that the present is the result of too many things to judge, and most who could be held responsible are already gone; there is no blame. But who could listen to the words he is speaking and not find all the survivors complicit?
If Samina ever judges, she does not let on. She takes his hand and brings it to her smooth cheek, teases, “And what did you do after dinner?”
He teases in return, feigning ignorance, “Beth probably read a book—she liked to read, like you. And I watched television.” Like no one, anymore.
“Did you make love?”
“We did.” He kisses Samina lightly on the lips, and then again, more firmly.
It comes to him now that he and Beth had made love before dinner, not after. It was the first time they’d been together since the diagnosis, and they both knew instinctively that late night sex was too perilous, that intimacy in the darkness would open a door to ruminations and anxiety, to the weighing of different possible permutations of pain and loss. It would have defeated the purpose of coming downtown to unfamiliar territory, taking the train instead of their car, leaving behind anything that might remind them of their day-to-day lives.
They had come here to leave sadness behind them and it had worked; for nearly twenty-four hours, they had simply let go of their circumstances. It had seemed miraculous that they could feel so light.
He knows now why he picked this place.
Samina is shaking him. Jerry blinks, not sure where he is.
“And then what?” she demands.
He remembers. He gives her hand a squeeze and feels her relieved exhale on his cheek. “And then… life went on. The next day we checked out and went home. The day after that we went to work. A couple days later it finally got cooler; maybe it even rained.”
Samina is quiet. She doesn’t ask more about Beth. He must have told her at some point about the surgery and treatment, and how after she could no longer have children. He’d been grief-stricken, his grief unexpected in the wake of their relief that she would survive. He’d been unprepared for the sense of loss. But gradually he’d accepted it. They both had. They’d found other things to celebrate and irritate. It’s amazing, Jerry thinks, how much life can change, and still come to feel normal.
He wants to tell Samina this, it seems important, but he can’t tell if he is speaking the words or thinking them and then it doesn’t seem important after all. She’s helping him lie down now, and he touches her cheek. It feels hot, feverish, a feverish red apple. He feels a flash of worry for her before he realizes—it is his hand that is growing cooler. That seems right. He should become cooler, like the life he came from, and she, born of heat and storms, should be hot.
The next time he opens his eyes, the room is blurred and refuses to focus. Beth’s face, looming over his, is blurred and shadowed too. He wants to tell her how it all feels normal. No, that’s not right. He wants to tell her how it all felt real. How he dreamed that storms came and left the world hot, dreamed that enormous walls had grown up around their city, and that somehow she had chosen to go outside them while he had chosen to stay. He’ll tell her how in the dream, when she’d left him behind he’d started over and ended up with a woman half his age, just like she’d kidded him about. They’ll laugh. When he wakes up he’ll tell her.
Samina props her head on an elbow, winds a piece of Jerry’s hair around her finger. It’s curly, still black, only peppered with gray. He’d told her once that when he was young, some people kept living, kept using resources, until their hair was completely gray. It wasn’t the same as now.
After he stops breathing, she turns her back so they can be spoons and pulls his arm across her body to feel its weight. She lies motionless so her heart in her chest won’t crack. The comforter is a cloud around her, rising in the foreground of her vision as light filters through the curtains. For the first time she notices the soft drone of the climate control. She checks the clock. For eleven more minutes, the room is hers.
Barrington Smith-Seetachitt lives in Los Angeles where she does some typical Los Angeles things like writing screenplays, working a day job and trying to eat less carbs–but she’s an Indiana girl at heart. Barrington writes about writing at barringtonsmith.net and writes about life at The Daily B (barrington99.blogspot.com).