BY ERINROSE MAGER
Later, Rich will miss the hotel’s starched bed sheets, the balcony from which he admired a strip of ocean, the bright oriel window, the paper delivered to his door, the stiff melon triangles arranged beside his morning coffee, the breakfast cart wheeled to the end of the bed, sheets flung over the footboard during a fitful night’s sleep, newspaper well-leafed under another cup of coffee—he will miss these luxuries, but not enough to return to them. There will be a time in Rich’s life when he will only dimly remember the name of the hotel, the month in which he stayed, the events of his life that surrounded his trip. He will revisit this city, certainly, but never the hotel itself. The hotel will host numerous visitors for decades after Rich’s trip, but, like many beachfront properties, one day close its doors to the encroaching sea, beach diminishing until dark waves lap at the hotel walls, the flooded city just another part of the ocean’s continental shelf.
Like he always does, Rich will leave his card on the bedside table before he checks out of his room. He’s been told that it’s wise to litter his name about, as he’s in the business of real estate and wants to expand his clientele, though he doesn’t broker this city’s properties and is, in fact, many hundreds of miles away from his office, his home, and his family. The housekeeper will throw away Rich’s card shortly thereafter, but will first turn it over to check for a note or a number, and wonder for a moment whether this stranger has left his card for her alone.
The housekeeper, Esther, saw him on just one occasion: upon wheeling his breakfast cart to the foot of his bed—pot of coffee, overturned cup, chilled silver creamer, melon slices, scrambled eggs and wheat toast under the polished cloche, a glass of juice he would leave untouched.
“Right here is fine,” he said, tipping her generously.
“Thank you,” Esther said, and idled for a second in the doorway. He wore the hotel’s terry cloth bathrobe, hair still wet from a shower.
“I love this place,” he said, and she nodded, thanked him again. He was not handsome, but his body looked strong, and Esther thought about him later that day as she gave her son a bath. That night she had trouble sleeping and turned to her husband, but he wouldn’t wake. His thick arms twitched from dream.
For a time Esther will remember the stranger, but soon his image will wane and then disappear, replaced by countless other faces that populate her mind—men and women and children who have stayed, for a day or two, in the rooms that she cleans and the beds that she makes. In fact she will grow to remember the stranger only insofar as she remembers, for many years, the tenderness with which she bathed her son that evening, soaping his little ears in the yellow light of their bathroom.
Rich is here to visit an old friend, Elizabeth, who’s just had a child. They were lovers many years ago, but their romance ended after college, and a friendship remained, sustained by phone calls and vacation postcards. Rich and Elizabeth both know that theirs is a friendship to last the duration of their lives, unfaltering in their need for companionship and likewise uncomplicated by the physical distance between them. They find that as time passes, fewer and fewer people truly know them as they know themselves, and they thus take comfort—perhaps even pride—in the intimate knowledge they have of the other.
On the second day of Rich’s visit, Rich and Elizabeth sit on her front porch while Elizabeth nurses the baby. The porch faces the sea.
“I’m so glad I moved here,” says Elizabeth. “I’ve always wanted to raise a daughter by the ocean.”
“I know,” says Rich. “She’ll have a wonderful childhood.” He looks out over the dune drop, its knots of Marram grass, the gray stretch of water.
“I hope she does,” says Elizabeth. She closes her eyes and then opens them, looks down at her child who has finished nursing. “Maybe she’ll love to swim.”
Rich smiles at them both, this serene pair. “No doubt she will,” he says.
“My little surfer,” says Elizabeth. She turns the child over to be burped.
Elizabeth bids Rich farewell, puts the baby down for a nap, and then stands in front of the kitchen sink abutted by a picture window through which she gazes onto dunes, their Marram grass, the sea that grays the shore. Earlier in her life, she painted brazen, harsh landscapes— some of them seascapes—though she felt shame in showing her artwork to most, lest the viewers question her talents, of which she was uncertain. Rich encouraged her painting, once gifted her a brush set paired with a card that read: “Onward!” She’d discarded the note only to remember it sometime later—its simple encouragement, its faith in her craft—and she wished for it back until she forgot it entirely. After retiring years later, she will resume her painting for a while, mostly to liven her mind and her eyes, but her work will be of other subjects—not of vistas, but of the animals who inhabit them: grackles, oily starlings, rabbits pursued, thick koi twisting their bodies into empty space. Her granddaughter will appreciate the painting of the koi, ask for it, hang it in her house above the mantle and then in another house behind her toilet for its whimsy, but in time unmount and discard the piece when her husband calls it unsightly.
Elizabeth heats a bottle on the stove, tests the milk on the back of her hand. The sky has darkened. She mounts the steps to tend to her daughter who stirs in sleep.
Before he departs, Rich takes a walk through the streets of the city, as he often does when traveling. An hour passes and night falls. Rich finds that he’s lost, but continues on in search of a drag that will lead him along water and then, if he’s lucky, back to his hotel. He pauses to catch his breath in front of a shuttered theater. Its arched entrance is wrought by an ornate, revivalist façade. Two minarets cap columns that buttress the theater’s marquee. Beside the box office, below weak lamplight, stands a blackened statue of a man on horseback. The horse rears on its hind legs, and the rider, sword in hand, swivels his body to look over his shoulder. His upturned face is half-lit under the lamplight and frozen in anguish or fear. Rich regards the horse’s musculature, the small boots in their bronze-rendered stirrups, the rider’s twisted brow, the reins that encircle his hands, the coattails that spill from his back, over his saddle, and onto the horse’s tarnished croup. A car drives past. Its headlights sweep across the statue, illuminate it, and release it to shadow. Rich turns away, observes the car as it rounds the corner, and then retraces his steps to the hotel, forgoing a walk beside the ocean. Much later, under miles of sea, the statue will corrode, the rider’s face dissolved and unseen.
Erinrose Mager was born in South Korea and raised in Pennsylvania. Her fiction has appeared in the Collagist, DIAGRAM, Passages North, Hyphen, and elsewhere. She is co-editor of the Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature (Lit Pub Books), and is a Creative Writing/Literature Ph.D. candidate at the University of Denver. She received her MFA and Senior Fiction Fellowship from Washington University in St. Louis.
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