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He loved maps.
He loved their colors, their features, the little bits of embellishments in the margins that folks of old has used to represent parts of the world as yet undiscovered. “Here be monsters.” Or, rather, “Here be places we know naught.” Just as scary. Maybe more so.
When he was a kid, his folks subscribed to National Geographic. He’d collected all the maps from those days, and many of them had ended up on his walls. Different projections of the world. Europe. North America. Distant places, all lined in and organized and planned and delimited and understood.
Sometimes the map changed. He’d loved charting out the evolution of colonial Africa, as the unmapped continent (“Here be monsters”) gave way to great swathes patched together by European powers. Few folks knew that Germany and Italy had once had African colonies. Folks only remembered England and France – who’d taken over from the other two after a couple of World Wars – and, maybe, Portugal. Then, slowly, the country lines had changed, solidified, become real nations rather than vague “East North-Central Africa” and the like.
Europe, too. The World Wars had juggled things around horribly. But the Cold War had locked them down, as neither side would allow the map there to change much, lest some advantage be given or lost. He’d had the European map lovingly memorized before the Communists had fallen, making everything all higgledy-piggledy again. Germany united, but Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia (Jugoslavia in maps gone by), and even the Soviet Union itself had fragmented. Europe didn’t look like Europe any more …
He pushed open the base of the hotel room door – “Alexandra,” said a small brass plaque at eye level – with a toe. He’d left it ajar (no automatic closers here), knowing he’d have his hands full with luggage on the second trip, and it swung open heavily but easily to rebound with a rattly thump as it hit the stop.
“So I asked the girl at the front – the one you thought looked like your sister, not the other one – if they had a map of the hotel, and she laughed and said nobody had ever thought it was –“
He stopped. Holly was putting her things back in her suit case, the one she’d carried in with them, the one she’d stayed to start unpacking. “What’s wrong?”
She stopped, took a deep breath, then met his eyes. “I can’t do this, Jase. It’s over.”
A cold hand slipped through his entire torso, squeezing the organs inside. “What do you mean it’s over? We just got –“
“Our marriage. Our vacation. It’s over.” She shook her head, preemptively denying his response. “I know you thought this would fix things, and maybe I did, too, but it’s over, Jase. Standing here, waiting for you to come back, realizing I really didn’t want you to, ever. Realizing I just didn’t want you to come back. I didn't want –“
She stopped. He knew he should say something. There were words he should use, if only he could figure out the right ones, words that would fix everything, make it all better, solve the problems, whatever they were, make it –
Through the afternoon sunlight that reflected off the hill outside the window, he could see a rolling orchard. What kind of trees were those, he wondered? Triple-A hadn’t mentioned anything about agricultural festivals in the area. Maybe they could take a walk out there later, and –
He snapped back. Holly wasn’t looking at him. She slipped her kit back into the small case (purple, it was purple, it had taken him months to find it, but it was her favorite color and), zipped it all up, and dropped it onto the floor, expanding the metal handle so she could –
She was going. She was serious. They’d had arguments, she’d even spent that weekend with her brother down in Boston, but she’d come back, and they’d made up, and it had been all better, he’d been sure of it. But she was leaving now, and if she went out that door it really was all over, and he didn’t know what to do, what to say, what words to pick out, the thickets and brambles of the conversation blocking his every turn and –
She walked past him, not even looking at him, passing within inches of her, and he should reach out, really, and touch her, stop her, somehow explain to her that –
Holly was at the door, her back to him. She stopped. “I’ll – someone will be in touch.”
And she was gone, and he was alone in the room, the dusty, dark green murals of pines and firs rising up around him, trackless, enveloping, and he was lost, and he didn’t know what to do.
At the bottom of every map – any map worth the name, at least – was the legend. Just as legends in literature spoke of great symbolic truths, so the panoply of symbols at the bottom – or sometimes side, or even top – of a map spoke of symbols that revealed truths. Colors, sometimes, that told of political boundaries, or mineralogical ones, or forested areas, perhaps. Abstract symbols – little boxes with pennants for schools, little boxes with crosses for churches. Small open circles for tiny towns, barely there. Large, multi-ringed circles for major cities, like moated castles. A star for the capital, distant and brilliant. Different types of lines for different types of roads.
He could tell a lot about an area by the legend. But he couldn’t always tell what lay between the symbols. An open field? A woods? An industrial park?
The legend was as important for what it meant he couldn’t know, as much as for what it meant he could.
“Welcome to the Lens Sin Hotel.”
He blinked at her. Her name tag said Sarah, but – what had she said the name of the place was?
He didn’t really think she looked like Holly’s sister (to whom, mercifully, he didn’t have to send a Christmas card any more). Still, there was something familiar about her.
Of course, that might just be because he’d seen her last time. The last time he’d been there. When Holly –
“Do you have a reservation?”
“Um, yeah. Yes. Uh … last name Connelly.”
“Yes, Mr. Connelly.” She glanced at the old computer screen in front of her, a row of coded information arrayed and shifting as she tapped keys with mysterious legends on them. Warm plastic and ozone drifted past his nose. Wonder who sold them that old piece of junk, he thought to himself.
“Yes, that will be room – 47.” She flickered a frown on her face, then smiled up at him. “You asked for non-smoking and a queen-size.”
“Yeah. Yes. That will be fine. Does it –“ He hesitated. “Does it have any murals?”
She cocked her head – damn, he knew who she looked like, it was on the tip of his tongue –
A fat old tomcat, one eye closed in a perpetual wink, jumped up on the woman’s desk, purring a loud rumble. He wanted to reach out and touch is thick gray fur, feel it between his fingers.
She laughed, a nice but tired laugh. “No, though it has a couple of paintings in it by a local artist. You want to keep that on your American Express?”
He went through the rest of the formality of checking in – asking once again if there was a map of the place, and being greeted with polite assurances that there were not, but "just follow these directions …"
He had a good sense of turning directions into a picture in his head, though, and, through many dangers, toils, and snares (or, rather, through a number of halls, half-level stairs, and back passages), he found himself at his room. He inserted the skeleton key (a charming touch, if not as secure as some might prefer) and entered the room.
It was as described, and just as charmingly eccentric as the rest of the place. The walls were varnished pine, the furniture an eclectic mix of styles, none of them modern. The room smelled faintly of dust and sunlight, even more faintly of ammonia and air freshener. He noticed, as before, a lack of Internet jacks, or even a phone, or even a TV. Which suited him fine, because all he wanted was –
Well, why was he there? It’s not like the last visit had been a joyful one.
He’d seen Holly once more that trip. She hadn’t left (physically,that is), and he’d spotted her across the room in the restaurant (the one on the lower level, by the sauna).
He’d considered going to her, trying to explain, trying to find those words – but then a waiter with a monocle had stepped in front of him, ushering him to a table off in a side chamber. From there he couldn’t see her, could only see a variety of other visitors: a young family to one side, harried with children; a pair of priests engaged in some sort of quiet theological argument; a businessman with graying hair and glasses reading some sort of trashy sci-fi novel with improbable spacecraft on the cover; a threesome of women who met his wandering gaze with cold, angry, and laughing eyes (respectively); and –
None of them were Holly, and she’d been gone by the time he finished dinner (something with cod or other fish, battered, with chips and a locally-made ginger ice cream) and gone looking for her.
He hadn’t seen her until the final hearing. She wouldn’t look at him.
So why was he here? He closed his eyes. Closure, his therapist had said (yes, he was seeing a therapist, having attended three of the five sessions his insurance would cover), trying to make this trip, perhaps, end well.
Or maybe he just wanted to find an opportunity to enjoy the place. Chuck, his friend (still his friend) who had originally told him about the inn had been so rapturous about the place, he’d almost felt guilty having had such a miserable time.
And he had odd dreams of trying to actually map out the corridors of the hotel. To know where the various byways and passages went. Chuck had mentioned, for example, some sort of bar here with some excellent micro-brews, hops and malt and fresh water, made on site, but he’d been unable to find it last time.
Last time –
(Footsteps click-clacked down the hall, mostly, but not entirely, avoiding the carpet runner along the hard, worn wood, and passing beyond.)
What had it all meant? The therapist – Doug was his name, not even a real doctor like in the movies – had asked what he’d wanted out of his marriage. That was a silly question of course, since he wanted what everyone else wanted – a familiarity, a knowledge of someone else in the world, a piece of the planet in time and space laid out and understood and manageable and navigable and –
Holly had taken that all away. He’d thought he’d known her, but he hadn’t, not the way she revealed herself at the end. He thought he’d known his life, though, too, and – well, he hadn’t. Otherwise Holly would still be with him. Instead, he was by himself, and he didn’t know what was coming next, let alone what had happened. Nothing made sense any more. He didn’t know what any of it, any of this, meant.
And maybe that’s why he was back here. It was here that he’d gotten lost. Maybe (it sounded silly to think about it this way) he could find his way again. He could figure out the landmarks from here, realize where the road should be taking him, figure out where he was going, or even where he was, or --
A knock on the door, which rattled slightly in its jam.
“Yes?” Never open the door in a hotel without finding out who it was . Paranoid lately? he quipped internally.
“Ah, excuse me, I, ah –“
A woman's voice echoed from the hallway. He relaxed a little. And then felt guilty about mistrusting her, and opened the door.
She was about his height, but auburn-haired to his own light brown. She could stand to lose a few pounds, perhaps, but fewer than most folks would say (Holly had claimed he had a weakness for the zaftig). She was wearing jeans and a light red knit sweater, and was blushing slightly. Her hair was damp, freshly washed.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi.” Pause. “Oh, I’m sorry, I just – well, I’ve been back and forth past this hallway twice, and I saw you go into this room last time I passed, so I knew you were here, and …”
He was confused, but – “Yes?”
“I’m, ah – lost.”
He laughed. He hadn’t meant to, and he saw her brow furrow with annoyance, until she unexpectedly laughed, too. “I mean, I’m not lost, I know where I am, I just don't know how to get to where I'm going. I –“
“I understand. They don’t even have maps of the place.”
“Oh, well, yeah, that would help. I’m trying to find this bar, and –“ She hesitated, realizing how that sounded, then quickly added, “I mean, my girlfriend, Tammy, she said I had to drink some of the local beers, and – well, I’ve been back and forth, trying to follow the directions the desk gave me, and I keep ending up here, so I was hoping –“
He smiled. He could unpack later. “I’ve heard of the same place. I think my friend, Chuck, called it the Knotty Pine. I’m not sure I know where it is, but – well, I’ve been wanting to find it to. If you don’t mind another explorer coming along with you.”
She smiled. It was a nice smile, like her laugh was nice. “Sure. Maybe we can both get lost. Or maybe we can both find it.”
“I’m sure at least we’ll find something.”
Lastly, good maps had scales. Contrastingly shaded bars, which showed what distance on the map related to what distance in the real world. It tied the symbolic to the real in a way that the boundaries of the map, or the little graphics for schools and cities and interstates, could not. Numbers, which made concrete the abstract of quantity, similarly made solid the space which a map entailed.
Some maps had multiple scales. Sometimes that was to represent different units of measure – Imperial vs. Metric, for example. More often it was a matter of projection, a compromise between flat paper and round globes, so that an inch at the Equator didn’t mean an inch at the Arctic Circle or an inch at the Tropic of Capricorn (he was a Capricorn, and had always thought it metaphysically unfair that astronomical latitude was in a different hemisphere from himself).
What he couldn’t abide were maps that had no scale. “Map not to scale,” said some legends, a sign of sloppy thinking in ninety percent of the cases. On occasion, it made sense. The London Underground maps, for example, were a marvel of abstraction, designed to show relationships and sequence other than distance. Did that make them maps, or diagrams? He’d had an argument with Holly over that once – though most of her arguments had to do with why it didn’t make a difference.
No, he preferred maps with scales. With a scale, he knew how everything fit, what was near and what was far, and how far he would travel if he made it from point A to point B. Diagrams could be useful, but – well, they left so much out, left so much to chance. He never knew how far he had to go to get to where he were going, if he didn’t have a scale ...
He’d asked for Room 47 again. Sarah had shook her head sadly. That was currently occupied, she explained, almost beginning to say more, then pulling back her hand and just shaking her head. Room 42, just down and across the hall, was open, and was just as nice, even though it looked out over the gravel of the front drive rather than the snowy mountains beyond –
He’d agreed, not wanting to cause trouble. It was fall, and there was a chill in the air, and he didn’t know why he was back again.
He carefully unpacked his things. He always unpacked his suitcase into the drawers and closet, even if he was only going to be in a place overnight. Holly had thought that silly, but he’d persisted, and certainly wasn’t going to change now.
Room 42 was a lot like Room 47. Same paneling. Same faint scents, though the air freshener smelled more of lavender than fake roses. Same eclectic mix of furniture (none of it the same in particular, but all of it the same in feel). Rather than the pictures of Venice and Rome and some other unidentified Italian city that had been the subject of the oil paintings in 47, 42 sported various enlarged photographs of bears – catching fish, rising out of rivers, tumbling about on the grass with cubs. They were stunningly well done, if not quite his cuppa for room decor.
He missed the paintings of Italy. His eyes had kept going to them when Mary had come back to his room after beers and some excellent blackened chicken sandwiches that the bartender (Antoine? Antonio?) had served them. The two of them had talked until after midnight about movies, about books, about politics, about travel. He’d been to Rome (though not Venice) and had told her a bit about the history of the Coliseum (the subject of the painting), and she’d been polite enough to seem interested in it, and one thing led –
Well, no, it hadn't. He’d been tempted – so tempted, surprisingly tempted, almost mindlessly tempted – to put a move on her, to invite her to stay over. But he hadn’t, and at length, she’d smiled, politely glanced at her watch, and mentioned she had to leave early in the morning to make it to Portland in time to catch a plane –
And that had been it. The nicest evening in the last year (well, perhaps, in the last several years, Doug having taught him to try to be objective about such things), and it had been all over. Mary had given him a smile, and a hug, a faint whiff of apples in her hair, and had … been gone.
The rest of the stay was ... okay. Bearable. He'd spent a little time mapping out routes to the different restaurants and the three bars (a passing gent in a jongleur’s harlequin had assured him there was a fourth, though could only mutter something about Whitsuntide when he’d asked directions), but it had seemed dull, pointless. Why go anywhere when nowhere was anything more special than someplace else?
He’d instead wandered in the adjacent orchard (apples, too, it turned out), and had read a biography of John Jay, and had left a day early so that he’d have time to do his laundry back at the condo before going back to the office on Monday.
Why was he back?
Doug would have probably said something about "closure" again. But it was more than that. He wanted to taste the beer. He wanted to see the paintings. He wanted (again, once he’d been away) to figure out how the lounge full of velvet divans and mirrors actually connected up to the library full of books on local history and geography and personalities (he’d gone two different way between the two, and then had gotten thoroughly lost on the third trip).
But, he had to admit, it came down to a sense of the familiar. He’d rather go someplace he’d been before – but that still had aspects to explore – than go someplace new. He acknowledged (now) that personal foible (better than he’d ever accepted Holly’s judgment of him as “unimaginative” and “in a rut”).
So coming back to the Inn (“Welcome to the Lance End, Mr. Connolly,” Sarah had cheerfully chirped upon his arrival) had felt both intriguing and comfortable, his favorite combination.
It had helped that he’d received a phone call telling him he’d won three days and two nights, based on his having dropped his business card in a fishbowl during his last visit. He hadn’t remembered doing so, but he usually did such things when he remembered his cards. He’d extended the stay (thinking it only fair) to four nights. He had plenty of vacation time accrued, and he wanted to track down again that odd niche full of reference materials – dictionaries, thesauri by someone other than Roget, atlases … especially those. He’d found the, briefly, flipped through a couple of books, but been drawn away by hunger, then been unable to …
A knock at the door.
No. Not his door. Out in the hallway.
He sighed. Things didn’t actually work that way. An odd, feral thought bubbled upwards. Idiot. Romantic fool. What, you thought it would all happen again? Why did you really come back? And it was Holly’s voice, and she was shaking her head. You are so odd, Jase. Such a bizarro blend of the concrete and the fantastic. He’d tried to tell her about William Blake, but she’d grown stony-faced and turned on the TV and …
Voices. A woman, arguing with a man. Or a man saying something unpleasantly – voice raised, bitter and sarcastic –
He stepped to the door, opened it.
”I – ah, I just want to see the paintings –“
Another voice, Edward’s he assumed, smarmed, “Tell her the Coliseum saw the death of 1,873 Jesus freaks in its day, and if she wants to see it she should buy a goddamned airline ticket.”
The man at the door smiled, an odd combination of triumph and leer, and then slammed the door of Room 47 in her face.
She turned, eyes wide. “Jason?” She looked back at the door. “I just wanted … to see the paintings ... the ones you ... and –“
He stared at her. “Mary?”
They were in an elegant restaurant (down the hall, up two flights, around the corner, and past the blue doors decorated with lilacs), dressed in blue jeans. He was wearing a green striped shirt he’d picked up at Old Navy on a whim. She was wearing a dark blue sweatshirt with a kangaroo on it. They were dancing to Schubert waltzes played by a monocled man at the piano, filling a space between the tables.
He could not dance. Holly had told him that. But he danced with her, now.
About them, faces flittered. An old man. A woman with tattoos on her face. A young couple. A triplet of women, seen once long ago, now smiling kindly smiles.
He registered none of them. And if she did, she said nothing, but buried her face against his shoulder, her warm breath along his skin, the scent of apples in her hair.
They moved about, unbounded and unrehearsed, following no defined path or known way, needing to measure no distance or rely on any landmarks -- trusting the road would open up before them, even if they could not know where it led, knowing only that they would explore it together.
The young woman from the desk smiled, and closed the lilac-bedecked doors to the restaurant behind her. Sometimes, she considered, the stories had a happy ending, as much as stories ever ended. Things weren’t always about horror and blood and pain. Not always.
And sometimes you didn’t need a map, if you kept your eyes open to find the way.
-- Dave Hill