They live in hotels for awhile, after he does that to her face. Not real bad, but bad enough for them to leave the same night. Frantically packing the car as though hoping to outrun some unknowable natural disaster. There’s sand in the bed, Baby, he’s saying. Back at the house, a million years ago in the suburbs. And she won’t tell him why. She’s letting him believe things. There’s sand in the bed, and they are a long way from the ocean.
He tucks a blanket around her shoulders and they drive for three hours, past the bedroom communities in the west, his hand on her thigh and the radio on. When he speaks it’s as though he is speaking to a child he hopes to befriend, and she answers as a child might, imagining her child-self running down the dark stretch of highway alongside the passenger window of their white Hyundai. Pushing her breath out ahead of her, never tiring. Never turning her head to meet the eyes of the passenger, who is unravelling a loose thread from her skirt and saying, no, I don’t suppose work would miss me for a little while.
At the first hotel she waits in the car while he speaks with the concierge. On the radio the Mills Brothers are singing about Sadie Green, twee twee twee twah twah, and she falls asleep briefly, jerking awake when he comes back for her and the bags. She follows him through the hotel foyer to the lift, her hair pulled down over one side of her face.
They drink steadily in the first few days. Glasses stationed around the room with dried half-moons of lime in the bottom. So hot out that the tint is blistering off the windows of cars in the street. But that is out in the great, dusty world that they are not a part of for the moment. The insides of the hotels are cool and stark, and there is nothing to remind them of themselves. Their luggage lost in the mirrored halls of wardrobes. The bed a vast white plane where nothing terrible has ever happened, where they lie naked on the bright sheets and he tries to lift the bruise from her face with remedies he has heard or read about. Butter, honey, kaffir lime. And although she knows none of it will work, she smiles and lets him. The bruise remains and blackens, but they wake each morning to clean light with only the slightest recollection of the dreams they have climbed out of.
When he goes out for fresh limes, for fresh bottles of gin and soda water, she watches his back as he moves across the car park. Already sweating, he looks back at the hotel every now and then, although it’s obvious he can’t tell which window she’s standing behind, which room is theirs.
A playground, she thinks, or a building site—she knows she could have said anything about the sand, that he wanted to believe her. Disasters with egg timers, he would have believed even that. But she’d panicked and said nothing, and he’d taken hold of her shoulders and shaken her hard, so that her head nodded loosely on her neck as he shouted why? why? why?
Now they are here, and his brother is looking after their dog.
After several days there is hair in the sink, stains on the sheets. Unwashed clothes piling up on the floor. This grittiness an emissary from their life before the hotels, threatening the equilibrium he has charged to the joint account. At these first traces of disarray they move on, packing their belongings with the same urgency as when leaving the house, only to arrive at another version of the first hotel. Only to fall onto another bed where no smell or stain of either of them is held in the memory of its sheets. These rooms are so sterile that nothing could fester. Though nothing could possibly grow, she thinks. She is inside a parenthesis where nothing matters yet, no decisions need to be made.
But she is always thirsty in these places, each night waking sticky-mouthed and sliding from beneath his outflung arm. Each night drinking from her cupped hands and watching her reflection in the bathroom mirror, sometimes dabbing at her cheekbone with wet fingertips. Under the halogen lights the bruise looks like bad theatrical makeup; two weeks now and it hasn’t rubbed away, and she’s lost count of the places they’ve stayed in. This could be the fourth or the fifth.The hotels fit neatly inside each other like matryoshka dolls, getting smaller and smaller. Half-size, quarter-size. The first hotel turned from a single piece of wood, solid as a nut and sealed up tight.
She saw a quarter-size hotel once; public art at the side of a freeway somewhere south of here. She had wanted to pull over, to crawl in there on her hands and knees and lay her head on one of the scaled-down beds. To sleep for a long time, dreamless and alone, in a place where no one would find her.
If she could get back there. Take the keys from his jacket while he sleeps and head south. Inside the quarter-size hotel it would be empty, just bracing and wires for the neon lights, but it wouldn’t matter. She could drive all night and be there by late morning. She would begin to remember. It would be as simple as that.
First published in Meanjin (Australia)
Editor: Sally Heath
Meanjin was founded in Brisbane by Clem Christesen (the name, pronounced Mee-an-jin, is derived from an Aboriginal word for the finger of land on which central Brisbane sits) in 1940. It moved to Melbourne in 1945 at the invitation of the University of Melbourne. At the beginning of 2008 Meanjin became an imprint of Melbourne University Publishing.
Josephine Rowe was born in 1984 and lives in Melbourne, Australia. In 2011 she spent a Midwestern fall in residence at the University of Iowa, as a participant of the International Writing Program. "Hotels" will be included in her second collection of short fiction, Tarcutta Wake, forthcoming from UQP.