I sat on the edge of the hotel bed and my feet didn’t even reach the floor. My notebook was open on my lap and the hotel slippers dangled from the tips of my toes. Maxine sat on the sofa on the far side of the room under the huge bay window, unpacking make-up and toiletries onto the dressing table.
The bed was an absurd size, too big in all dimensions. Whenever I laid in it I felt like I was too far away from the floor, too far away from the edges, too far away from Maxine. My own bed at home is tiny, a sliver of a bed where no matter how I lie in it some part of me is always dangling over an edge. Maxine has never seen my bed. She has never been to my home. I would be embarrassed to have her there.
“Have you written?” she said, without looking up.
“A little.” I looked down at two separate unfinished sentences.
She took a small crystal perfume bottle out of her bag and placed it on the table.
Maxine was fifty-one years old and I had just turned thirty. We were having an affair. Every now and then she contacted me, sending brief little text messages asking how I was, what I was doing. Cleverly ambiguous messages with plausible denial built into them. A denial that became a lot less plausible when she told me to meet her at the usual place at the usual time.
Between us on the floor was a huge mandala rug, completely filling the vast space in the center of the room. The rug’s complex, blossoming pattern made it look as though the whole world had exploded out from its center. We always stayed in this room. It was Maxine’s preference. She arranged and paid for everything. The first time we stayed there I insisted we should split the bill but she laughed it off and said I wasn’t to worry about that. When I saw the room it was instantly obvious that I couldn’t afford to pay for half of it. I couldn’t have afforded to pay for the breakfast. The room was enormous, and the whole of it was so extravagantly furnished that it made me feel a little uncomfortable. She looked like she belonged there. I looked like the wind had blown me in by accident. The bathroom was made of black marble and was so polished I was nervous to touch it in case my greasy fingerprints never came off. There was a chandelier hanging in the middle of the room and I laughed the first time I saw it. Maxine had asked me what I was laughing at, and then she stood staring at the chandelier for a while, trying to work out the joke.
Maxine stood, threw open the doors to the balcony and stepped outside. It was late but there was still a hint of the sunset on the horizon. She rolled a cigarette, placing a little bundle of tobacco on the paper, sealing it closed with her tongue.
She looked elegant in the dress she was wearing, like a femme fatale from a noir, but the way she rolled her cigarettes reminded me of the old men I saw at the unemployment center with their stubby, arthritic fingers that are nimble at only this one thing.
She turned and looked into the room, holding her cigarette between two long fingers.
“What are you writing about?” she said.
I closed my notebook, put down my pen.
“I wasn’t really writing,” I said. I still didn’t know how to finish either of the two sentences I had started.
Sometimes she looked so much like a femme fatale that I worried she was going to ask me to murder her husband with her and I just didn’t think I had that in me. Actually, she hardly talked about him, and when she did it was always with the strangest details. He likes motor sports, apparently, and is allergic to honey.
She exhaled a soft cloud of white smoke. “Read what you have written to me.”
I read her one of the unfinished sentences.
“It’s a good start,” she said.
Maxine turned and leaned against the balcony, finishing her cigarette and I watched her as she watched the last remnants of the sunset fading away.
We first met in a coffee shop on a rainy Sunday. I had been in there for a long time, reading. She sat down at my table and then asked if I minded her joining me. Because of the rain the coffee shop had filled up suddenly and so there weren’t many places to sit. Of course I said I didn’t mind. She was soaked and was struggling with her large umbrella and the coffee she had just bought. I moved my stuff out of the way so that she had space and then went back to my book. A few minutes later I picked up my pen because I wanted to underline something I had read and once I had done it she reached over and took the book off of me.
“Why did you underline this?” she said to me, tapping the book with one finger. She seemed annoyed by what I had done.
I told her that I didn’t know, just that I wanted to and she seemed dissatisfied with my answer.
“But why this line?” she said.
“Something about it just struck me,” I told her, and reached to take my book back.
She read the line again, as though trying to find the hidden significance of it, as though there were something special about this line in particular over all the others. Then she handed me my book back.
“Do you often write in your books?”
“Sometimes I write in them,” I told her. “Sometimes I just underline bits that I like.”
She put one finger to her lips and examined me. I sipped my coffee then she smiled a little beneath her finger and nodded.
That was how we met.
Maxine called out the WiFi password but I didn’t use it. If anything what I wanted was to be less connected, not more. She was sat at the table in the corner of the room, thumbing through the room’s information pack.
“Has anything changed?” I said to her. We had read the pack together the first time we stayed here, sat on those exact chairs by the table.
“No,” she said. “It’s all the same.”
I laid on the bed looking up, wondering how a person comes to the conclusion that a chandelier is what a room needs. They seem so unnecessary.
Maybe this is the definition of luxury. Having things you don’t need. How much of the extravagance of that room could you remove before it was no longer considered luxury? How much before it was no longer comfortable?
“I am putting you down for Eggs Benedict,” Maxine said to me. She had started filling out the breakfast menu, ready to hang on the outside of the door for the night staff to retrieve. I felt uncomfortable by the idea that preparations for my breakfast would begin before I am even awake. That it was someone’s job to ensure that my morning would unfold precisely the way I demanded.
“Do you want toast as well?” Maxine said.
I thought that I probably wouldn’t want any toast when the time came, but I remembered how much I had enjoyed the little selection of marmalades and jams that came with it in the past.
“Yes please,” I said.
“Two slices of brown toast,” she said.
Maxine ticked the little boxes on the breakfast menu like she was marking an exam paper and when she was done she walked across the enormous mandala rug, opened the door and hung the menu outside. At some point before morning it would be gone and I shrank at the thought of those people scurrying around in the night, trying to keep me happy.
“I am going to have a shower,” she said.
“Do you want me to have a shower?”
“If you want to,” she said. “I don’t mind.”
This frustrated me. I don’t know why I wanted her to care about whether I had a shower or not, but I did.
Earlier that day we had met in the lounge at the hotel, the same as we always did. She was waiting for me at a table with a pot of tea in front of her. I had run a little late and hurried across the lounge to join her.
“Have you been waiting long?” I asked.
“Not very long,” she said, gesturing for a waiter and telling him to bring me a coffee. Black no sugar, she had told him, remembering the way I take it from the first time we did this, but never once checking to see if I wanted something different. Which was okay, I suppose, because I never did.
I made my excuses about why I was late, telling her about the train delay, which was true, but leaving out the part where I overslept because I had stayed up much too late the night before playing video games, which was also true.
“What have you been doing?” I said. There was nothing on the table but the tea. I never go anywhere without a paperback in case I need to fill a little time like this. There were newspapers in a rack by the door but Maxine hadn’t picked one up.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just waiting.”
The waiter bought my coffee over and we both went quiet as he placed the mug, the pot, the sugar, the milk in front of me, one by one.
Maxine had a bite to her voice that sounded like she was always on the edge of losing her temper. I don’t know why I liked it but I did.
“I’m very sorry sir,” the waiter said, putting the tiny milk jug back on the tray and taking it away.
After we finished our drinks we went outside to walk around the grounds of the hotel. We always did this. It always happened in exactly the same way so we didn’t even need to talk about it. Out of the lounge into the lobby, through the front door and across the gravel yard and the gardens down to the edge of the moss covered river. She took my arm and we walked slowly. We crossed a small wooden bridge, pausing to look along the length of the river, at the white flowers that had broken through the moss. I always wanted to take a photograph of it, but I never did because I suspected it would spoil the moment. Then we followed the path through the woods that led to a small copse of silver birch trees and sat on a bench.
Maxine told me once that this was one her favorite places. That when she was feeling stressed she used to close her eyes and imagine herself back there, sitting on the bench surrounded by the white trees with the dark knotholes scattered over them. She never mentioned if I was sat with her or not. I expect I was not.
We sat on the bench, pressed close to each other and the dense afternoon light broke through the trees.
“Are you writing at the moment?” she had asked me.
“No,” I said.
“I think I have forgotten how.”
Maxine made a little hmm noise and nodded her head, like this made perfect sense.
This routine that we played out each time we met was so fixed I even had a sense of how long we would spend sitting on the bench among the silver birch.
The first time you do something you do it because it seems nice, and if it turns out well then you do it again the second time, trying to catch a little of whatever had worked before. Then, when the third time comes around, you do it but you’re not even sure why. You do it because you don’t know what else to do.
“What are you thinking about?” she said to me.
I went to say not much, but the words caught and nothing came out. She turned and looked at me, head inclined.
“I was thinking it would be nice to go somewhere different,” I said.
“You don’t like it here?”
“I love it here,” I said, “but it would be nice to go somewhere different.”
“I don’t know. Anywhere.”
“You love it here but you want to go anywhere but here?”
I felt like Maxine was misrepresenting my words but I couldn’t deny that that was what I had just said.
“Yes,” I said. “Exactly.”
She looked away from me, out through the birch trees with the broken cracks that ring the white bark. She seemed disappointed and as we sat in silence I got the distinct impression that I had managed to say the most perfectly wrong thing possible.
Maxine came out of the bathroom wearing one of the thick hotel dressing gowns. Her hair was still a little damp and scruffy. I liked the way she looked when she had just come out of the shower but I never told her that. She always presented herself so particularly that I expected she might take it wrong. But bundled in the hotel dressing gown, with her make-up off and her hair a little wild, I felt like I was being let in on a secret. Like I had been allowed backstage. There probably aren’t too many people who get to see Maxine like that.
“Did you want to take a shower?” she said.
I put my notebook onto the bedside table.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
Maxine undid the dressing gown and underneath she was wearing a silk nightdress. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was all that comfortable. It looked a lot less so than the dressing gown.
I wondered if silk was genuinely as luxurious as we think it is, or if this is just an association that has set in over time. A lie we have all chosen to believe. The nightdress was thin and the blue-grey color of it seemed too cold. It looked like it wasn’t doing enough for her.
She dropped the dressing gown to the floor and walked around to her side of the bed and sat down. She made sitting on the edge of this unnecessarily tall bed seem a lot easier than I did. She looked like she was mounting a horse side-saddle.
“Let’s not have sex tonight,” I said.
Maxine tilted her head a little, looked at me over her shoulder.
“Let’s just spend some time together. Let’s just talk.”
“You don’t want to have sex with me?”
“It’s not that,” I said.
Maxine looked away from me, down at her knees which poked out from the blue-grey nightdress. She tugged at the hem.
“You want to just talk?” she said. My confident, impatient Maxine seemed to have retreated and someone else emerged in her place. “What do you want to talk about?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You? Me?”
“What about you and me?” she said. “Would you like to hear about my husband? Or my son? He has learning difficulties and is struggling with college. Perhaps you want to help with that?”
She looked at me but I didn’t know what to say. Then the expression on her face set and it was like she had replaced a mask and I was no longer backstage.
“Look,” she said, rescuing me from myself, “this isn’t going to work for me.”
And so we had sex and when it was done I put my underwear and t-shirt back on because I didn’t want to be naked any more.
While I slept I dreamt that the knotholes in the silver birch trees blinked like eyes, and when I woke up Maxine wasn’t in the bed with me. I rolled over and saw a crack of light under the bathroom door and figured she was in there. I laid awake, listening to the silence coming from the bathroom.
After a little while she came out and went onto the balcony again. She crept across the room, opened the door quietly and I pretended to be asleep. Maxine rolled another cigarette and stood looking off into the night. I lay on my side with my eyes half open, watching the way the moonlight picked out the details of her face. Her little clouds of smoke dissipated quickly after she exhaled them and she stroked her chin idly with her free hand. When she was finished she stubbed out the cigarette on the railing, then dropped it over the edge and watched it fall into the darkness.
She came back into the room, gently closing the balcony door and crept around gathering up her things. I closed my eyes and carried on pretending to be asleep as she put her make-up and toiletries away. She closed the zip on her bag slowly, making the smallest noise possible.
Then she got dressed, pulling on the same clothes she had worn before and when she was done there was a protracted silence and I couldn’t work out what she was doing now. I opened my eyes a crack and saw Maxine stood fully dressed with her coat on, her bag over her shoulder, standing in the middle of the mandala rug.
In the darkness I couldn’t see much more than a silhouette and for a moment I thought she looked fragile. Her shoulders seemed to slump a little, her head seemed lower than normal. The expression on her face was one I couldn’t understand. She looked down at me and I don’t know if she saw that my eyes were half open and watching her or not. Maybe she knew, maybe she didn’t.
As I lay there I wondered if this was the last time I would ever see her, and I thought that even if it wasn’t, when the last time comes it would be exactly like this. Maxine turned and walked away.
She opened the door and stepped out. The catch clicked loudly as she closed it behind her but I still pretended to be asleep. I heard her soft footsteps on the thick carpet retreating into the distance and then it was silent.
In the morning the sun was up and the room was bright and Maxine was still gone. I sat up in bed and kicked the heavy sheets off of me. She had taken all of her things. The only sign that she had been here at all was the dressing gown that was still on the floor in the little heap it had landed in. I got up and went into the bathroom. The disposable toothbrush she had brought with her was still there. So were the miniature travel bottles of shampoo and shower gel. I had half expected to find a message written on the bathroom mirror in lipstick, but I don’t know why I expected that. She had never done anything like it before.
There was a knock on the door and when I opened it a hotel porter was stood there with a service trolley, a polished cloche over some plates, a pot of coffee to one side.
“Your breakfast sir,” he said. He seemed taken aback by me, but I assume this was because I was still only wearing my underwear and t-shirt.
I stepped to one side and he wheeled the trolley in, lifted the cloche and started moving the food onto the table in the corner of the room. I went into the bathroom and came out wearing the other dressing gown. On the table was my coffee, my Eggs Benedict, my two slices of brown toast. Maxine’s modest breakfast was laid out next to mine, the menu card she had filled out was laid in the center.
“If you need anything else, sir,” he said, and then wheeled out the trolley, closing the door behind him.
I sat down at the table and poured a cup of coffee. At the bottom of the menu card Maxine had written ‘no milk with the coffee’, but that hadn’t stopped them including a little jug of milk anyway. I spread some marmalade onto the toast and took a bite, but I wasn’t hungry. I put on the hotel slippers and took my coffee out onto the balcony. The morning was clear and cold and the smell of the air reminded me of something from a long time ago, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. On the railing was the little ashy smudge where Maxine had stubbed out her cigarette and away in the distance was everything else.