by: T.E. Cowell ((Header art by the incomparable James Hart Dyke.))
This week we feature a double dose of the introspective, melancholy, and always relatable work of T.E. Cowell, On this occasion, Cowell ushers us into one man’s penthouse sanctuary where calming respite is offered from the incessant and pervasive noise of the world below…
The hotel was massive. Its footprint took up an entire city block lengthwise and widthwise. His first night there, Paul had a room with a view of a large city square. Through the windows he saw old church buildings, impressive for their size if not their age. He saw pigeons going about their business and people standing or crossing the square, some in groups, others alone. He saw someone dressed as the grim reaper in the square and then watched someone walk up to him—or could it have been a her?—to get their picture taken with the grim reaper’s arm around them.
It wasn’t a bad view, Paul decided, but there was something about it that bothered him. He was on a top floor and the people and the square beneath him felt so far away. He felt excluded from it all. It almost felt like he was in a castle. But instead of feeling like a king, Paul felt small and alone.
In the morning after breakfast, an elaborate buffet in the hotel, Paul walked over to one of the reception desks and asked a very young-looking woman if there were any other rooms available. She looked away from him after he’d spoken without a moment’s pause and focused her attention on a computer screen. It was as if guests were commonly asking to switch rooms. For all Paul knew, maybe they were.
Paul thought the receptionist might question him if there was anything wrong with his room. But she said nothing and just looked away, her face indifferent, almost bored-looking. She was probably twenty or twenty-one. Either still in college or fresh out of it.
The young receptionist looked up from the screen and back at Paul. Her eyes shifted so quickly, so easily from the computer screen to Paul that it startled him.
“Yes, we do have some other rooms available.”
“How about on the canal side,” Paul said. “Anything there?”
She consulted the computer again. Paul stood in front of her rather awkwardly with his legs crossed and the fingers of one hand tapping, without his full awareness, upon the counter. The receptionist was pretty and this made Paul somewhat nervous. Throughout his life he’d never done well with women and this had always caused him a great deal of distress. Whenever he found himself conversing with an attractive woman, his nerves got the best of him and made him appear awkward. He often laughed when he became nervous, a laugh that did him more harm than good. Paul was fifty-two years old and single, had never married, and had no kids. In a lot of ways he was like a young man stuck in a middle-aged man’s body. There were certain experiences that on an emotional level matured a person, experiences that Paul had never had.
The receptionist looked back at Paul with the same quick eye movement. “We do have a room on the canal side, sir, a suite. I can arrange for someone to show it to you if you’d like.”
“Okay,” Paul said. “I’d like that. Thank you.”
Paul wanted his vacation to be perfect, or as near to perfect as it could be. His life was not perfect, not even close, but he thought that if he could just have a good vacation he might be able to go back to his imperfect life feeling satisfied enough to continue with the drudgery that filled the bulk of his days.
A young man led Paul to the canal side suite. The young man had a walk, a kind of bow-legged swagger that to Paul’s mind made him look like a criminal. They exchanged not a word until stopping at a door at the end of a very long hallway. The young man fit the key into the lock, and before he opened the door, said “This might be my favorite room in the hotel.”
Paul entered the room and immediately saw why. There was a comfort to the room that his previous room had lacked. The room was lower to the ground than his previous room, low enough that when he looked out the windows at the canal he didn’t feel the loneliness, the sense of exclusion he’d felt before. Through the windows he saw a bridge stretching over the canal and cars and people walking or bicycling by and nothing looked as small or far away as it had in the other room.
Paul knew he would take the room after being given the tour. This was exactly the sort of room he’d had in mind. This was the room, he thought, that’d make his vacation as near to perfect as possible.
He had had sightseeing plans, of course, but in the end they all fell through. Whenever he wasn’t in his hotel room, whenever he was strolling the streets on his way towards some tourist attraction, he would think of his hotel room, spacious and empty, and of how much money he was spending on it, and then he would end up turning around and aborting his plans to return to his hotel room. If it was still morning or close to it he’d stick another pod into the Keurig coffeemaker. If it was later he’d take another beer from the mini-fridge.
He’d sit with his beverage in a comfortable high-backed chair and look out the windows at what there was to see. The people kept coming over the bridge in cars, on foot or on bicycles. It was a constant stream of people. Paul sat there and watched all the people go by and he was glad he wasn’t one of them. He was glad he was in his hotel room, comfortable and relaxed.
But then he would start to feel antsy and would stand back up and get ready to go out again, only to leave and return without having done anything notable. Numerous times he thought of switching rooms again, even hotels, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.