It’s Not You
Hotels were different in those days. You could smoke in them. The rooms had bathtubs, where you could also smoke. You didn’t need a credit card or identification, though you might be made to sign the register, so later the private detective—just like that, we’re in a black-and-white movie, though I speak only of the long-ago days of 1993—could track you down. Maybe you anticipated the private detective, and used an assumed name.
Nobody was looking for me. I didn’t use an assumed name, though I wasn’t myself. I’d had my heart broken, or so I thought, I’d been shattered in a collision with a man, or so I thought, and I went to the fabled pink hotel just outside the Midwestern town where I lived. The Narcissus Hotel: it sat on the edge of a lake and admired its own reflection. Behind, a pantomime lake, an amoebic swimming pool, now drained, empty lounge chairs all around. January 1: cold, but not yet debilitating. In my suitcase, I’d brought one change of clothing, a cosmetic bag, a bottle of Jim Beam, a plastic sack of Granny Smith apples. I thought this was all I needed. My plan was to drink bourbon and take baths and feel sorry for myself. Paint my toenails, maybe. Shave my legs. My apartment had a small fiberglass shower I had to fit myself into, as though it were a science fiction pod that transported me to nowhere, but cleaner.
I would watch television, too. In those days, I didn’t own one, and there was a certain level of weeping that could be achieved only while watching TV, I’d discovered—self-excoriating, with a distant laugh track. I wanted to obliterate myself, but I intended to survive the obliteration.
It wasn’t the collision that had hurt me. It was that the other party, who’d apologized and explained enormous deficiencies, self-loathing, an unsuitability for any kind of extended human contact, had three weeks later fallen spectacularly and visibly in love with a woman, and they could be seen—seen by me—necking in the public spaces of the small town. The coffee shop, the bar, the movie theater before the movie started. I was young then, we all were, but not so young that public necking was an ordinary thing to do. We weren’t teenagers but grown-ups, late twenties in my case, early thirties in theirs.
New Year’s Day in the Narcissus Hotel. The lobby was filled with departing hangovers and their owners. Paper hats fell with hollow pops to the ground. Everyone winced. You couldn’t tell whose grip had failed. Nothing looked auspicious. That was good. My New Year’s resolution was to feel as bad as fast as I could in highfalutin privacy, then leave the tatters of my sadness behind, along with the empty bottle and six apple cores.
“How long will you be with us?” asked the spoon-faced, redheaded woman behind the desk. She wore a little white name tag that read Eileen.
“It will only seem like forever,” I promised. “One night.”
She handed me a brass key on a brass fob. Hotels had keys, in those days.
I had packed the bottle of bourbon, the apples, my cosmetic bag, but forgotten a nightgown. Who was looking, anyhow? I built my drunkenness like a fire, patiently, enough space so it might blaze.
You shall know a rich man by his shirt, and so I did. Breakfast time in the breakfast room. The decor was old but kept up. Space-age, with stiff, Sputnikoid chandeliers. Dark-pink leather banquettes, rosy-pink carpets. Preposterous but wonderful. I’d eaten here in the past: they had a dessert cart, upon which they wheeled examples of their desserts to your table—a slice of cake, a crème brûlée, a flat apple tart that looked like a mademoiselle’s hat.
I had my own hangover now, not terrible, a wobbling threat that might yet be kept at bay. I had taken three baths; my toenails were vampy red. I had watched television till the end of broadcast hours, which was a thing that happened then: footage of the American flag waving in the breeze, then here be monsters. In my other life, the one that happened outside the Narcissus Hotel, I worked in the HR department of a radio station. I lived with voices overhead. That was why I didn’t have a television. It would have been disloyal. I’d found a rerun on a VHF station of squabbling siblings and then wept for hours, in the tub, on one double bed, then the other. Even at the time, I knew I wasn’t weeping over anything actual that I’d lost, but because I’d wanted love and did not deserve it. My soul was deformed. It couldn’t bear weight. It would never fit together with another person’s.
The rich man sat at the back of the breakfast room in one of the large horseshoe booths built for public canoodling. His pale-green shirt, starched, flawless, seemed to have been not ironed but forged, his mustache tended by money and a specialist. His glasses might have cost a lot, but twenty years before. In his fifties, I thought. In those days, fifties was the age I assigned people undeniably older than me. I never looked at anyone and guessed they were in their forties. You were a teenager, or my age, or middle-aged, or old.
The waiter went to the man’s table and murmured. The man answered. At faces, I am terrible, but I always recognize a voice.
“Dr. Benjamin,” I said, once the waiter had left. He looked disappointed, with an expression that said, here, of all places. With a nod, he recognized my recognition. “I listen to you,” I told him.
He had an overnight advice show, 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., on another AM channel, not mine. He had a beef-bourguignon voice and regular callers. Stewart from Omaha. Allison from Asbury Park. Linda from Chattanooga.
“Thank you,” he said. Then added, “If that’s the appropriate response.”
“I’m in radio, too,” I said. “Not talent. HR.”
The waiter stood by my table, a tall, young man with an old-fashioned, Cesar Romero mustache. When I looked at him, he smiled and revealed a full set of metal braces.
“I will have the fruit plate,” I said. Then, as though it meant nothing to me, an afterthought, “and a Bloody Mary.”
It is the fear of judgment that keeps me behaving, most of the time, like the religious. Not of God, but of strangers.
“Hair of the dog,” the radio shrink said to me.
“Hair of the werewolf,” I answered.
“You could be. On air. You have a lovely voice.”
In my head, I kept a little box of compliments I’d heard more than once: I had nice hair (wavy, strawberry blonde), and nice skin, and a lovely voice. I didn’t believe the compliments, particularly at such times in my life, but I liked to save them for review, as my mother saved the scrapbooks from her childhood in a small town, where her every unusual move—going on a trip to England, performing in a play in the next town over—made the local paper.
Who in this story do I love? Nobody. Myself, a little. Oh, the waiter, with his diacritical mustache above his armored teeth. I love the waiter. I always love the waiter.
The Bloody Mary had some spice in it that sent a tickle through my palate into my nose. A prickle, a yearning, an itch: a gathering sneezish sensation. One in ten Bloody Marys did this to me. I always forgot. I took another drink, and the feeling intensified. Beneath the pressure of the spice was a layer of leftover intoxication, which the vodka perked up. I thought, not for the first time, that I had a sixth sense and it was called drunkenness.
“No good?” the radio shrink asked me.
“You’re making a terrible face.”
“It’s good,” I said, but the sensation was more complicated than that. “What are you doing in this neck of the woods?”
“Is it a neck?” He touched his own with the tips of his fingers. “I like the rooms here.”
“You probably have a nicer room than I do. The presidential suite. Honeymoon?”
“I’m neither the president nor a honeymooner.”
“Those’re the only suites I know,” I said. It was possible to be somebody else in a hotel; I was slipping into a stranger’s way of speaking. “Still, far from Chicago.”
“Far from Chicago,” he agreed. He picked up his coffee cup in both hands, as though it were a precious thing, but it was thick china, the kind you’d have to hurl at a wall to break. “Business,” he said at last. “You?”
“I live here.”
“You live in the hotel?”
“Oh, you’re merely breakfasting, not staying.”
“I’m staying.” I started to long for a second Bloody Mary, like an old friend who might rescue me from the conversation. “Somebody was mean to me,” I said to the radio shrink. “I decided to be kind to myself.”
He palmed the cup and drank from it, then settled it back in the saucer. The green shirt was a terrible color against the pink leather. “It’s a good hotel for heartache. Join me,” he said, in his commercial-break voice, deeply intimate, meant for thousands, maybe millions.
There were other radio hosts in those days, also called “Doctor,” who would yell at you. A woman who said to penitent husbands, You better straighten up and fly right. A testy man—No, no, no, no: Listener—he called his listeners “Listener”—Listener, this is your wake-up call.
But Dr. Benjamin practiced compassion, with that deep voice and his big feelings. Once you forgive yourself, you can forgive your mother, he would say. Or perhaps it was the other way around: your mother first, then you. He told stories of his own terrible decisions. Unlike some voices, his had ballast and breadth. For some reason, I’d always pictured him as bald, in a bow tie. I pictured all male radio hosts as bald and bow-tied, until presented with evidence to the contrary. Instead, he had a thatch of silver hair. The expensive shirt. Cowboy boots.
I listened to his show all the time, because I hated him. I thought he gave terrible advice. He believed in God and tried to convince other people to do likewise. Sheila from Hoboken, Ann from Nashville, Patrick from Daly City. On the radio, it didn’t matter where you lived, small town or suburb or New York City (though nobody from New York City ever called Dr. Benjamin): You had the same access to phone lines and radio waves. You could broadcast your loneliness to the world. Every now and then, a caller started to say something that promised absolute humiliation, and I’d have to fly across the room to snap the dial off. My husband cannot satisfy me, Doc—.
So long ago! I can’t remember faces, but I can remember voices. I can’t remember smells, but I can remember in all its dimensions the way I felt in those days. The worst thing about not being loved, I thought then, was how vivid I was to myself.
Now I am loved and in black and white.
Up close, he seemed altogether vast. Paul Bunyan-y, as though he’d drunk up the contents of that swimming pool to slake his thirst, but he didn’t look slaked. Those outdated glasses had just a tinge of purple to the lenses. Impossible to tell whether this was fashion or prescription, something to protect his eyes. His retinas, I told myself. He’d slumped to the bottom of the hoop of the horseshoe, his body at an angle. I sat at the edge to give him room.
He said, “Better?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Are you a real doctor?”
He stretched then, the tomcat, his arms over his head. His big steel watch slipped down his wrist. “Sure.”
“I’m not a medical doctor,” he allowed.
“I know that,” I said.
“Then, yes. Yes, I’m a doctor.”
The table had an air of vacancy: he’d eaten his breakfast, which had been mostly tidied away, except for the vest-pocket bottles of ketchup and Tabasco sauce, and a basket filled with tiny muffins. I took one, blueberry, and held it in the palm of my hand. The waiter delivered a Bloody Mary I hadn’t ordered, unless by telepathy. “You have a PhD,” I said.
“That I have a PhD?”
“That we call people who study English literature for too long the same thing we call people who perform brain surgery.”
“Oh dear,” he said. “Psychology, not English literature.”
“I’d like to see your suite.”
He shook his head.
“I’m married,” he said. “You know that.”
Of course, I did. Her name was Evaline. He mentioned her all the time: he called her Evaline Robinson the Love of My Life.
“That’s not what I mean,” I said, and I tore the little muffin in half, because maybe it was what I’d meant. No, I told myself. Every time I walked down a hotel hallway, I peered into open doors. Was there a better room behind this one? A better view out the window of the room? Out of all these dozens of rooms, where would I be happiest—by which I meant, least like myself? I only wanted to see all the hotel rooms of the world, all the other places I might be.
I was waiting to be diagnosed.
He said, “You’re a nice young woman, but you won’t cut yourself a break.” He said, “All right. OK. We can go to my suite. They’ve probably finished making it up.”
Even the hallways were pink and red, the gore and frill of a Victorian valentine: one of those mysterious valentines, with a pretty girl holding a guitar-size fish. The suite was less garish, less whorehouse, less rubescent, with a crystal chandelier, that timeless symbol of One’s Money’s Worth. The two sofas were as blue and buttoned as honor guards. A mint-green stuffed rabbit sat in a pale-salmon armchair.
“What’s that?” I asked.
He looked at it as though it were a girl who’d snuck into his room and undressed, and here came the question: throw her out, or . . . not.
“A present,” he said.
“Not from. For. Somebody else. Somebody who failed to show up.”
He shook his big head. “Not a child. She must have lost her nerve. She was supposed to be here yesterday.”
“Maybe she realized you were the kind of man who’d give a stuffed bunny to a grown woman.”
He regarded me through the purple glasses. Amethyst, I thought. My birthstone. Soon I would be twenty-eight. “You are young to be so unkind,” he observed. “She collects stuffed animals.” He turned again to the rabbit and seemed to lose heart. “This is supposed to be a good one.”
“What makes a good one?”
“Collectible. But also, it’s pleasant.” He plucked it from the chair and hugged it. “Pleasant to hug.”
“Careful. It’s probably worth more uncuddled.” I put myself on the chair where the rabbit had been. I don’t know why I’d thought the chair might still be warm. He sat on the sofa, in the corner closest to me.
“I thought you might be her,” he told me. “But you’re not old enough. How old are you?”
“Not nearly old enough.”
“Do I look like her?”
“Oh. I mean, I’m not sure.” He made the rabbit look out the window, and so I looked, too, but the sheers were closed and all I perceived was light.
“A listener,” I said. “A caller. You’re meeting somebody. Linda from Chattanooga!”
“Not Linda from Chattanooga,” he said contemptuously. He put the rabbit beside him, as though aware of how silly he appeared.
After a while, he said, “Dawn from Baton Rouge.”
I couldn’t remember Dawn from Baton Rouge. “What does she look like?”
“I only know what she tells me.”
“Should’ve asked for a picture.”
He shrugged. “But: cold feet. So it doesn’t matter.”
“And now you’ve invited me instead,” I said, and crossed my legs.
“Oh god, no,” he said. “No, darling—”
The endearment undid me. I was aware then of what I was wearing, a pair of old blue jeans but good ones, a thin, black sweater that showed my black bra beneath. Alluring, maybe, to the right demographic, slovenly to the wrong one.
“Sweetheart,” he said. He got up from the sofa. It was a complicated job: hands to knees and a careful raising of the whole impressive structure of him. “No, let’s have a drink.” He went to the minibar, which was hidden in a cherry cabinet and had already been unlocked, already plundered, already refreshed. Imagine a life in which you could approach a minibar with no trepidation or guilt whatsoever.
He lifted a midget bottle of vodka and a pygmy can of Bloody Mary mix; he didn’t know I’d ordered a Bloody Mary because it was one of the only acceptable drinks before 10 a.m. He was a man who drank and ate what he wanted at any time of day.
“We’ll toast to our betrayers,” he said.
Because it was something he might say to a midnight caller, I said, “I thought we only ever betrayed ourselves.”
“Sometimes we look for accomplices. No ice,” he said, turning to me. “To get through this, we’re gonna need some ice.”
For a moment, it felt as though we were in a jail instead of a reasonably nice hotel, sentenced to live out our days—live out our days being another way to say hurtle toward death.
In those days, it was easy to disappear from view. All the people who caused you pain: you might never know what happened to them, unless they were famous, as the radio shrink was, and so I did know, it happened soon afterward, before the snow had melted. He died of a heart attack at another hotel, and Evaline Robinson the Love of His Life flew from Chicago to be with him, and a guest host took over until the guest host was the actual host, and the show slid from call-in advice to unexplained phenomena: UFOs. Bigfoot. I suppose it had been about the unexplained all along. All the best advice is on the internet these days, anyhow. That person who broke my heart might be a priest by now, or happily gay, or finally living openly as a woman, or married twenty-five years, or all of these things at once, or 65 percent of them, as is possible in today’s world. It’s good that it’s possible. A common name plus my bad memory for faces: I wouldn’t know how to start looking or when to stop.
The minibar wasn’t equal to our thirsts. He sat so long, staring out the window, that I wondered whether something had gone wrong. A stroke. The start of ossification. Then, in a spasm of fussiness, he untucked his shirt.
He said, “In another life—”
“I would have been a better man. How long?”
“How long what?”
“Was your relationship with whoever broke your heart.”
“He didn’t break my heart.”
“ ‘Was mean’ to you,” he said, with a playacting look on his face.
I did the math in my head, and rounded up. “A month.”
“You,” he said, in his own voice, which I understood I was hearing for the first time, “have got to be fucking kidding me.”
It had actually been two-and-a-half weeks. “Don’t say I’m young,” I told him.
“I wouldn’t,” he said. “But someday something terrible will happen to you and you’ll hate this version of yourself.”
“I don’t plan on coming in versions.”
“Jesus, you are young.” Then his voice shifted back to its radio frequency, a fancy chocolate in its little matching, rustling crenellated wrapper. “How mean was he?”
“He was nice, right up until the moment he wasn’t.”
“Well,” he said. “So. You’re making progress. Wish him well.”
“I wish him well but not that well.”
But that wasn’t true. I wanted them both dead.
“The only way forward is to wish peace for those who have wronged you. Otherwise, it eats you up.”
I wished him peace when I thought he was doomed.
How can it be that I felt like this, over so little? It was as though I’d rubbed two sticks together and they’d detonated in my lap.
“I bet you have a nice bathtub,” I said.
“You should go look.”
I got myself a dollhouse bottle of bourbon. At some point, he’d had ice delivered, in a silver bucket, with tongs. I’d never used tongs before. I’ve never used them since. The serrations bit into the ice, one, two, five cubes, and I poured the bourbon over, a paltry amount that mostly didn’t make its way to the bottom of the glass, it just clung to the ice, so I got another. The bathroom was marble—marble, crystal, velvet, it would be some years before hotels stopped modeling opulence on Versailles. There was a phone on the wall by the toilet. I ran a bath and got in. This was what I needed, not advice or contradiction, not the return of the person who’d broken my heart, because I would not be able to trust any love that might have been offered. It took me a long time, years, to trust anyone’s.
The door opened, and another tiny bottle of whiskey came spinning across the floor.
“Irish is what’s left,” said the radio shrink through the crack of the door.
“You’re a good man,” I said. “You are one. If you’re worried that you’re not.”
Then he came in. He was wearing his cowboy boots and slid a little on the marble. Now he looked entirely undone. In another version of this story, I’d be made modest by a little cocktail dress of bubbles, but no person who really loves baths loves bubble baths, nobody over seven, because bubbles are a form of protection. They keep you below the surface. They hide you from your own view. He looked at me in his bathtub with that same disappointed expression: just like you to bathe in your birthday suit.
“I have some advice for you,” I said to him.
“Lay it on me,” he said.
“Lay it on me. How old are you?”
He shook his head. “What’s your advice?”
“You should call your callers ‘Caller.’ Like, ‘Are you there, Caller?’ ”
“They like to be called by name.”
“Overly familiar,” I said.
“That’s your advice.”
“Yes,” I said.
He was sitting on the edge of the tub. The ice in his glass, if there’d ever been any, had melted. I had no idea what he might do. Kiss me. Put a hand in the water. His eyebrows had peaks. Up close, his mustache was even more impressive. I’d never kissed a man with a mustache. I still haven’t. It’s not that I’m not attracted to men with mustaches, but that men with mustaches aren’t attracted to me.
“Can I have your maraschino cherry?” I asked.
“No maraschino cherry.”
“I love maraschino cherries. All kinds. Sundae kinds, drink kinds, fruit cocktail. Tell me to change my life,” I said to him, and put a damp hand on his knee.
“I won’t tell you that.”
“But I need someone to tell me.”
He put down his glass beside the little bottle of shampoo. Such a big hotel. So many minuscule bottles. “You must change your life,” he said.
“Good, but I’m going to need some details.”
“I keep sitting here, I’m going to fall into the water.” He stood up. “You know where to find me.”
There isn’t a moral to the story. Neither of us is in the right. Nothing was resolved. Decades later, it still bothers me.
No way to tell how much later I awoke, facedown in the bath, and came up gasping. I’d fallen asleep or I’d blacked out. It was though the water itself had woken me up, not the water on the surface of me, which wasn’t enough, not even the water over my face, like a hotel pillow, up my nose, in my lungs, but the water that soaked through my bodily tissues, running along fissures and ruining the texture of things, till it finally reached my heart and all my autonomic systems said, Enough, you’re awake now, you’re alive, get out.
That was one of the few times in my life I might have died and knew it. I fell asleep in a bathtub at twenty-seven. I was dragged out to sea as a small child; I spun on an icy road at eighteen, into a break in oncoming traffic on Route 1 north of Rockland, Maine, and astonishingly stayed out of the ditch; I did not have breast cancer at twenty-nine, when it was explained to me that it was highly unlikely I would, but if I did, it was unlikely, it would be fatal, almost never at your age, but when at your age, rapid and deadly.
Those are the fake times I almost died. The real ones, neither you nor I ever know about.
The radio shrink would have said, I guess she died of a broken heart, and I would have ended my life and ruined his, for no reason, just a naked, drunk, dead woman in his room who’d got herself naked, and drunk, and dead.
But I wouldn’t see the radio shrink again. I was gasping and out of the tub, and somebody was knocking on the bathroom door. I don’t know why knocking—the door was unlocked—but the water was sloshing onto the floor, the tap was on, it couldn’t have been on all this time, and I’d soon learn that it was raining into the bathroom below, I had caused weather, and the radio shrink had packed up and left and hung the Do Not Disturb sign outside his room and paid for mine. Dawn from Baton Rouge was a disembodied voice again, but the redheaded woman, Eileen, she was here, slipping across the marble, tossing me a robe, turning off the tap, tidying up my life.
“You’re all right,” she said. I could feel her name tag against my cheek. “You should be ashamed of yourself, but you’re all right now.”
I would like to say that this was when my life changed. No. That came pretty quick, within weeks, but not yet. I would like to say that the suggestion of kindness took. That I went home and wished everyone well. That I forgave myself and found that my self-loathing was the curse: forgiveness transformed me, and I became lovely. But all that would wait.
He was wrong, the shrink: nothing truly terrible ever happened to me, nothing that would make me cry more than I did in those weeks of aftermath. I’m one of the lucky ones. I know that. I became kinder the way anybody does, because it costs less and is, nine times out of ten, more effective.
At some point, it had snowed. The night prior, that morning. It had been hours since I’d been outside. The snow was still white, still falling, the roads marked by the ruts of tires. Soon the plows would be out, scraping down to the pavement. My clothing, left behind by the side of the tub, sopping wet, had been replaced with a stranger’s sweat suit, abandoned by some other guest at the Narcissus Hotel and found by Eileen, a stranger’s socks, too, my own shoes and winter coat. I had to walk by the house of the couple who’d been necking everywhere, a story that seemed already in the past. By past, I mean I regretted it, I was already telling the story in my head. The woman I hadn’t been left for drove a little red Honda. There it sat in her driveway, draped in snow. That was all right. It was a common car in those days, and I saw it and its doppelgängers everywhere. Even now, a little red Honda seems to have a message for me, though they look nothing like they used to. When will this be over, I wondered as I pushed through the drifts. The humiliation is what I meant. Everything else is over, and all that’s left are the little red Hondas.
You would recognize my voice, too. People do, in the grocery store, the airport, over the phone when I call to complain about my gas bill. Your voice, they say, are you—?
I have one of those voices, I always say. I don’t mind if they recognize me, but I’m not going to help them.
He kept telling me I had to be kind. Why? Why on earth? When life itself was not.