The balding guy at the counter speaks English. Of course he does, I suspect I’m the first Dutch guest in a very long time. I reply in English, ‘Yes, a room for two, please.’ I like the anonymity of the foreign language; if I didn’t have to show him my passport, the man might have thought that I’d never been in this country before.
‘My partner will be here any minute,’ I say.
Smiling as if he’s in on the secret, the man presses the key into my sweaty palm.
One flight of stairs, down the hallway. There are no windows, but I know exactly what it looks like from the outside. I’ve ridden past this place countless times on my bike. It only registered when I was chatting with Naomi yesterday, while Googling cheap hotel city centre.
I think about our flat around the corner, a little too small for two, really, the way it’s squashed between two stately town houses. But Liz was lyrical about it, years ago, and I think I was, too. It was hard for me to refuse, in any case. Like I find it hard to refuse most things Liz suggests.
I imagine her lying in bed, the cover pulled up to her chin, as usual, her checked pyjamas making her look deceptively childish. Or might she be somewhere else? With Kees, with someone else?
Probably not. She’s been unfaithful for years, but I’ve never been able to catch her lying.
My room is almost entirely filled with bed. I pile the cushions on one side, lean back and read her message from fifteen minutes ago, I’m going to sleep now. Have fun in Germany. Do you think you’ll get the deal? Liz xxx
I reply, Everything ok. Will call you tomorrow.
Then I text Naomi. At the top of the chat window it says ‘3701 previous messages.’ Room 37, I write.
When I was a child, I used to wonder what it would be like to sleep over at the hotel that my mother and I passed every day on our way to school.
‘Why?’ she asked. ‘It’s so near our home, it’d be better to go to one further away, somewhere that you don’t know.’
I couldn’t explain that that was precisely what it was all about for me: a new place in a familiar world, not doing everything differently or leaving everything behind, just breaking a few routines.
Thinking about the hotel, memories come flooding back. How long has it been since I thought of it? I grow dizzy with the power of my old dream, the vivid details of the past. My mother’s dull black Peugeot, the plump, ever-smiley teacher who smelled of apples, waiting for me in the classroom. What has become of my classmates? The school has been torn down, my mother is in the graveyard by the river, next to my father. And what have I done? I studied, worked, changed jobs. I do remember the facts, I’m not crazy, but thinking back, it feels like I didn’t witness any of it. My mother’s unexpected death, meeting Liz when I was still in a relationship with my previous girlfriend. Looking back, every random event seemed inevitable, something I had to go along with. Including that time last summer, after what might have been the best eight years of my life, after we had decided not to have children and be content with each other, when she took me aside and told me everything. She’d slept with Kees, had been unfaithful.
‘I don’t want to leave you, but I want more than you. And I want to be able to talk about it.’
I wash my hands. Scalding hot water, lots of soap. I dab at the sweat under my armpits, although it keeps coming.
I didn’t feel the need to talk about it, nodding to everything Liz said. I already knew what she was telling me. I’d noticed her silences, her back against mine in bed at night, that name, Kees, that had slipped into the subordinate clauses, the asides of our conversations.
Later that night, when I was lying next to her, shivering, she said, ‘It’s just so stifling sometimes, the idea that this is all.’ And, ‘You’re so steady, I know I can always trust you, that you’re never with anyone else.’ It sounded like a complaint.
We stayed together, Liz and I, but she kept seeing Kees, it was what she ‘needed,’ she stated confidently. Liz always returned at the end of the night, by which time I’d often spent hours chatting with Naomi, whom I hardly talked to at the office, but whose story about her family, her sick son, her distant husband, I’d read on my screen. I kept thinking about what Liz had told me: ‘You’re so steady.’ ‘You’re so boring,’ was what I kept hearing.
Two knocks at the door, firm and decisive. She’s never that decisive at the office. I breathe in, feeling my lungs expand. There she is: blonde curls, strong shoulders, high cheek bones, wearing a skirt instead of her usual jeans.
‘Hi,’ I reply. ‘Great to see you. I wasn’t sure how you’d react, I’ve never done anything like this…’
‘Neither have I. Diederik thinks I’ve gone shopping, so we haven’t got much time.’ Only when she’s in the room and the door has closed behind her, does Naomi smile. Her front teeth are whiter than the rest of her teeth, something I’ve never noticed all these years.
We exchange a few words about the subjects we’ve talked about online. Her work. Her young son. Then we sit down side by side on the edge of the bed. We take some whiskey from the mini bar, but before having it, she sits up again. Naomi. With whom I’ve shared more over recent months than with Liz, at whom I’ve been casting secret glances during every lunch break for a very long time now, silently bent over my ham and cheese roll.
Whispering, she tells me to lie down. And while I comply, she undresses, standing before the bed. Slowly, deliberately, she takes off her skirt, her tights, her shirt and bra, revealing two impressive breasts, much larger than Liz’s. After a while I avert my gaze, inadvertently thinking of my mother for a minute, of Liz. The pyjamas she got from her sister. Our bed. When I slowly raise my eyes, everything has slowed right down and I see the pile of Naomi’s clothes on the floor, her narrow, bare feet, her muscular legs. She’s shaven all over. Looking at her naked body, her tight stomach, her arms, her neck, my eyes finally meet hers. And then, only then, I see all that I’ve lost.