Last Minute Travellers [From The Print]
by Cyn Grace Sylvie
I wake up before you, as I always do.
This is a rented room.
Two days ago, you told me that I was emotionally manipulative. That I am always desperately seeking attention, how pathetic it made me appear. You told me things change, and people change, and the things people desire change. And then you told me to fuck off.
Later in the afternoon, I asked you to apologize.
Instead you said, “Cape May or the Poconos?”
I asked you to apologize again.
You told me that you were sorry you told me to fuck off.
Now we are in the Poconos. I chose the Poconos because we had been to Cape May the year before. I told you I like to try new things, but it was only a half-truth; I also feared ruining a good memory with a bad one.
Around Christmas we had made that same mistake, returning to the same hotel where we had spent the holiday a year before.
We left the hotel in silence, after a night of silence. You refused to speak to me the entire drive home. And then you told me you needed a break to sort some things out. When we spoke again, you told me how much happier you felt, how much freer—lighter than you had felt in a long time. I kept my mouth shut, too embarrassed to tell you that I had passed the week almost never leaving my bed because the sun was too bright and the world was too loud and I missed you far, far too much.
“Let’s go to the Poconos,” I said. Even though I hate skiing. Even though I hate snow.
“It’s going to be great,” you said.
Yesterday evening I picked you up at the train station. Strained smiles, brief kisses. You climbed in and we didn’t speak much, I just drove and sang the songs to myself that were playing on the radio. You sat beside me, mostly silent, checking your phone every few minutes, again and again and again, like it was some nervous compulsion, a tick you have no control over. That did not sit well with me, because over the last few weeks you had insisted we contact each other less because you need less “screen time.”
Six months ago, we were sending messages to one another throughout the day. Poetry, dirty photos, updates on the things we were doing, how things were going. You would tell me you missed my skin, and I would tell you to wear your helmet as you rode your bike around the city.
Two months ago you insisted on ending each day with a video call, your face flushed and breathless as you walked home from one place or another, as I lay in my bed, laughing, telling you to get home and out of the cold.
But you don’t want those things anymore.
“Less is better,” you tell me. Which led to the incident wherein you told me to fuck off.
But it seems to me that all you do is check your phone while we are together. You tilt it away from me like I cause some sort of a glare on the screen.
We drove, and I sang to myself quietly, to block out the thoughts in my head that refused to be silent.
I always wake before you, and it is always a torment. When I am near you I constantly want to be touching you. I want my mouth on your skin, my hands in your hair. I want to press my body against you, get as close as I can get until finally you are in me, or I am on top of you or beneath you. I see you infrequently, but when I do I am like a greedy child and you are the bag of candy I have finally gotten my hands on and want to consume as much of as I can before someone takes it away from me.
But I have learned not to do those things when you are asleep. My hands will be pushed away. You will roll over and out of my grasp. My fingers will be firmly removed if I try a more bold inducement.
I always wake when the sun rises. And I wait, and tell my hormones to be still, to be patient. And try not to look at you too much because it just increases my desire and my need.
An hour passes, then another. Suddenly, you spring out of bed. “Come on, we have to hurry or we’ll miss breakfast,” you say. I look at you with confusion—getting up quickly is not a common characteristic of yours—but dutifully, hastily put on my clothes and follow you downstairs.
The hotel is in its off season and eerily empty. On arrival the night before, you commented that it reminds you of the hotel from The Shining, and I agreed. Sitting at the end of a deserted golf course, it is imposing in size, a luminous white apparition in the darkness. Inside it is all rustic wood and warm lighting. There is a fireplace blazing in the lobby, but the place is freezing.
We checked in, and you went up to the room while I headed back outside to park the car and get my bags. I got lost trying to find the room. I wandered through empty corridors that all looked alike. I passed by giant, empty banquet halls with glass walls, dark and beckoning. I passed a storage closet with it’s door open and a dead Christmas tree within, lying limply on its side. The elevator resembled a closet, too, and once its door closed there was a long moment before it started to climb, and I decided I would probably get trapped inside of it and die. My panic only increased as a telephone on the wall of the car began to spontaneously ring. Just as the door finally opened a voice emerged from the speaker in the wall: “Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?”
I called you in a panic and demanded the room number.
In the light of day, the hotel is no less creepy. Hotels and casinos share that surreal quality, making it impossible to tell what time of day it is when you are inside. Casinos do so in order to trick you into staying indefinitely, hotel hallways simply due to the architectural necessity of monetizing their windows.
The hotel restaurant does have windows, looking out on the bleak, rainy day. There will be no skiing today, and I am secretly pleased. We take a seat beside one of the large windows, order coffee, eggs. There are no bloody marys or we would order those too.
We sit in silence. I stare out the window at the grey day. I stare at the families around us, decked out in their snow gear, optimism radiating off their faces as they eat their pancakes.
As is our custom, it is I that tries to stir up some conversation. I can’t bear silence, and you are often silent these days, your face etched with that look that I find so unfathomable, never sure whether it means you are angry or bored or if it just happens to be the look your face assumes when it is resting. My anxiety stirs from its nest and stretches its wings; these days I assume it is the former as opposed to the latter.
My need to speak leads me to ask you personal questions that, more often than not, irritate you or are met by one-word responses that indicate probing any further will definitely irritate you. My need to speak leads me to sharing stories or anecdotes from my life, hoping they will inspire you in kind. But recently I have abandoned this strategy, after one night you accused me of having a “selfish world view” for doing so. I cannot speak to you about the news or current events, because you have made it clear you think my views are not as valid as yours, who clearly has more authority and experience on such matters.
In desperation, I have adopted a strategy I learned from my mother, a terrified woman who has spent most of her life living with an angry bear of a man she tries her best not to rile: I search for only the most innocuous subjects, trivial observations that would be next to impossible to get angry about.
I essentially begin talking to myself out loud. It is a tactic I abhor, one that sickens me even as I am employing it. But desperate times lead to humiliating measures.
“Do you think the green growth on that tree is a part of the tree, or a moss that is slowly killing it?”
“Do you think these people are coming in from the slopes, or going out?”
“How much do you want to bet my eggs benedict come out with hash browns instead of the fruit I asked for?”
“I don’t know,” you say to the first.
“I don’t know,” you say to the second.
“I think it will be fine,” you say to the third, and glare at me. You are glaring because the waiter had an impossible accent and I had to tell him several times what I wanted before he understood what I wanted, so now you are angry with me because you think that I am being racist for implying such a thing, neglecting the fact that I have a father with an impossible accent who often needs to be told something several times before he understands it as well.
Our food arrives, and on my plate is fruit instead of hash browns. You give me a wry, cutting, self-satisfied smile. “Bon appetit,” you say.
We go back to the hotel room after breakfast. We take off our clothes, climb back into bed. I know I cannot make the first move, how much it would upset you, were I to try. How much it upsets me to try and be rebuffed. So instead I nestle in close to you, try to seduce you with my proximity without actually touching you directly.
I fail. You fall asleep and I try not to go mad.
You wake three hours later. “Let’s get going,” you say.
“I just need a minute,” I tell you. I go into the bathroom and masturbate in resignation.
The night before, you told me that you were interested in buying a house in the Poconos. You inform me that our plan today will be to stop at a local bookstore and then travel around and look at possible locations. I am fine with this plan, as it is not skiing. And there is nothing finer than an old bookstore on a rainy day.
I am not fine with this plan insofar as it will require me to spend a large portion of the day driving in a car with you, a prospect that terrifies me.
You have no car, and your license is suspended. When we travel, it is my responsibility to do the driving. I am self admittedly not a good driver. And the way I drive angers you. And when you are angry you yell at me, call me terrible things in the heat of the moment. And then I retreat and go silent.
I go silent because I want it to stop. Because when I am hurt or frightened, my reaction since childhood has been to go on lockdown inside the cell of my own misery, to find a quiet place within myself to hunker down and wait out whatever it is that is hurting me until it is safe to venture out again.
The trouble is, so do you.
The bookstore is beautiful. It is just cluttered enough to feel cozy, just clean enough to induce a sense of calm. There is an old woman behind the counter who is just chatty enough to put one at ease, just quiet enough to make one feel free to browse the shelves in private comfort. It occurs to me that I long to be as this bookstore is: a beautiful disarray that mysteriously invokes a sense of peace instead of chaos. How I feel I am constantly failing in this spiritual endeavor, how I am littered shelves where nothing can be found, where everything is precariously placed and can collapse at the smallest touch at any moment, where there’s a clerk behind the counter that doesn’t know if or how or when to shut up.
I always spend too long in the bookstores. You are always forced to wait for me.
At the bar next door, I pore over my purchases. I am incredibly pleased with my finds. I want to discuss the books I have gotten, how I always limit myself to choosing just three, how one book is always a risk I know nothing about, and one a book that I have been eager to read.
I think about the derisive look you give me when I tell you something you find silly or whimsical. I think about how you told me recently to stop telling you a story that I found humorous because it made me seem “as stupid as my sister” to laugh about it. I think about the look you will surely give me if I tell you that I just purchased a book I know absolutely nothing about based solely on the look of it and a feeling in my heart. How somehow following my intuition will come off as naive and vain in the telling—two things I already feel when you look at me as I am speaking.
We sit in silence and wait for our bloody marys to come.
I drink three to try to fill the silence.
You tell me to get ready to go. On the way back from the bathroom, I approach you. You look at me warily. I put my arms around you, bury my face in your neck, inhale your scent. This is all I want. This is where I wish I could stay. Your arms wrap around me for a brief, blissful moment…and then they are gone again, and we are putting on our coats.
We get in the car, and I am already filled with a terrible sense of dread-anxiety. I am sixteen, and taking my driving test for the third time. You are the tightrope I must walk, upon which the slightest stumble will cause total disaster. You are the test I am failing again, and again, and again. You are a rigged game, one I can never win but keep trying to play, hoping to discover the trick to winning before I have nothing left to bid.
I pull out of the parking spot, smooth as ice. You are watching me with an eagle eye, but so far, so good. You tell me to turn left, and my anxiety begins to subside. Everything will be fine this time, everything will be fine.
I go a little too quickly over a speed bump, and it starts.
“What the hell is the matter with you?! Slow the fuck down! You’ve had three bloody marys! Jesus Christ, I don’t want to be pulled over by the cops!”
“I’m sorry…I was only going thirty….”
“You are going way too fucking fast—how am I supposed to see anything if you’re driving so fast?! Jesus fucking Christ. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
It occurs to me that this is the most you have said to me all day.
I slow down to 25 mph, and slowly collapse inside myself. I do my best to drive at the exact speed limit. I know my silence is infuriating you. But I also don’t know what to say that wouldn’t infuriate you.
I’ve lived this game for so long, I know there is no secret trick. There is simply no way to win.
In resignation, I drive and let your fury take the wheel.
We drive in silence, with the exception of three more outbursts. I am driving too slowly, and you accuse me of intentionally trying to antagonize you with this maneuver (until we pass a sign that shows I am driving over the required speed limit). You accidentally forget to tell me to take a turn, then instruct me to make an illegal turn to get back on route; I finally speak up and try to tell you that it isn’t legal, but that just makes you more angry and leads to more yelling. Finally, worst of all, I miss the entrance back to the hotel; unsure what to do, I pull into a nearby bar parking lot, turn around, and try to pull back out onto the road. But the road is narrow; I misjudge the space I will need to clear the turn, and need to momentarily back up in the street and realign, which leads to an approaching car having to slow down and wait for my correction. This sends you into a frenzy.
We pull into the hotel parking lot, and I can no longer even tell what you are saying in your rage. I hear you telling me that I am crazy, that I am impetuous, that I am completely insane. You accuse me of taking the last K-turn as a way to mock you.
I park the car, turn off the ignition. I put my head on the steering wheel, crushed, defeated. Weakly, I say, “Please, just stop. I just spent the last forty minutes driving you around. Please, just let it go, just let it go….”
That’s all I ever ask. Let it go. Put down the fury. Come to your senses. Let it be like a wind that passes over and then leaves, let it do anything other than what I know it will do—coil like a snake inside of you, make it impossible for me to speak to you or come near you. Force us to spend another night in the cold silence the anger demands.
But you can’t hear me; you are no longer there. “You are fucking insane!” you scream at me. I wince. You throw open the car door, slam it behind you, and storm off into the night towards the hotel.
I feel sadness at your departure. And worse, relief.
I sit in the car and weep. I weep because once again, I have somehow fucked things up. I weep because I know that I did not fuck things up. I weep because I understand this, and what it means. I weep because it is something I have no control to fix. I weep because I grew up with this shit. I weep, and I hear myself singing the song I sang then once again to myself now, a plaintive call to the universe, a reminder, a cry for help, an impossible answer to an impossible question.
“…I didn’t do anything wrong…”
I weep because I know there is no solution to this problem. That there is only one solution. The same solution there was then.
I climbed out of the car and found my way to the hotel bar. I almost wished that you would be there, as it would indicate that you were having a moment of self-reflection, of remorse—that you had somehow gotten control of that thing you lack control of.
The bar was empty. A young, beautiful Asian girl served me a glass of wine and tried not to look too much as I wiped the tears from my eyes.
I drank the glass of wine.
Went back up the stairs to our room.
I stood outside the door for twenty minutes.
Hating the world.
Trying to think of some solution I hadn’t tried. Some method to fix this other than the only one I could see.
Finally, I thought of my son.
I thought of my life growing up, living under that fear. A life existing under a storm of anger that could reign down upon you at any moment for any or no reason, destroy everything, and then move on, mindless of its own destruction. Afterwards, facing the wreckage; the refusal of anyone to admit that it had occurred in the first place, or worse, being blamed for it having occurred. A life lived under incrimination for simply being.
I knocked on the door.
When I told you I was leaving, you did not even look up from your book. I pitied you for that.
I woke up before you, as I always do.
This was a rented room.