Girl in a box # 2
Below is a story I wrote last year and was still making changes to this spring. I wanted to write it after I stayed in a hotel in LA a few years ago and felt very strongly that “the thing” that is wrong with a certain kind of people is their unshakeable sense that they are culturally relevant, that they are important to the world or history or to anyone except the people who know them. It’s a species of arrogance that is almost always relegated to cities. The story is set in a place where that sense prevails but it isn’t about that; it’s about a lonely girl in the middle of it. Most of the stories I write seem to be about lonely girls. What’s interesting about a not lonely girl?!
Although there are some bits in the story I like, and I’m proud that I wrote it, it never quite came together as a coherent whole. I did quite a lot of work on it and did all the things you’re supposed to do, like leaving it a few months and coming back to it, but I couldn’t find the change that would make it exactly what I wanted. So in the end I decided to leave as is. I think this is a good decision sometimes, after you’ve done plenty of work on a project. It makes sense to leave some things alone, as distant from perfection as they are, and so was the case with this in the end.
Anyway, if you do find time to read it, I would love to know what you think (only well-meaning feedback need apply, of course.) And needless to say, I hope you like it or it makes you think or something like that.
Girl in a box
The owners liked money a lot more than their hotel, and how little they loved it was written all over the place. Some of the ways money got saved had cute names, like “word of mouth marketing”, and some sounded shonky, like “minimum wage”, and all of them were woven into the flimsy flesh of the place. The furniture was a cheap Swedish imitation, customised just beyond recognition of its ubiquity, and the sheets were rough, but criticism never got radical, instead seeming to waver on some unconscious periphery of each patron. Maybe it was the Japanese whiskey that distracted them. Maybe the presence of the models, their lucky biology, their lives that had to be so full of glamour. The place was dark and swimming in hip music and good drink, and the formula created more openings in Shanghai, LA, Berlin, Istanbul, Reykjavik, Palm Springs, Riga, Cannes. “The Falcon has landed,” wrote a blogger for one of the openings, “and the party is only just starting.” In the wake of the buzz came young people who thought themselves creative and a City financier who stayed for a night in the Penthouse and hadn’t left yet. In the first few weeks, someone fell off a balcony and shattered their spine. But still, more people came.
It was hot, and Alana had sold her car to pay a bill, so that evening she did what no one did and walked through the city. The drivers were sinking like soufflés inside their cars; she felt victorious. When she reached the hotel she didn’t see the man cradling a drink in the foyer, but she did see Marl, leaning heavily on the reception desk to show off the muscle in his arms, and two girls in bikinis and wedges lolling on the sofa. In the staff room she took most of her clothes off and put her foot on the bottom rung of the short ladder, up towards the hatch leading to the interior of the Falcon’s glass box.
The man in the lobby had been there from the beginning, so the staff knew his name and what he drank and where to send the taxi once he’d passed out. Occasionally someone said “Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Bill?”, but mostly they let him at it. His face had only got that yellow tinge in the last few weeks; it was, of course, a Bad Sign, but he hadn’t yet taken any Positive Action about it. Instead, he toyed with his glass and waited on the low-slung sofa.
On the front of the box was a brass plaque carved with the name of the girl working that shift, slid into place via two metal brackets. At first, when it was uncertain how long you would stay, you got a plaque bearing the name of some other long-gone employee. For two months Alana had been Danielle, just like when she had worked her first waitress job and her badge had said Marie, and the type of people who actually say the names on badges out loud had sometimes called her – Marie! Marie! – and wondered why she never turned around. But now she the plaque said Alana in old-fashioned italics, a name she had picked two years ago in a bar after some personal crisis that seemed minor now.
You weren’t allowed to take anything in with you, no magazines, no compact mirrors, no chocolate, no other likely paraphernalia of womanhood that Marl’s imagination threw out. And you were required to stay awake to lie on your side with your eyes open, for you to be both still like a doll and a real, breathing human. The staff were instructed not to look in, as if the management wanted the girl, who only came out at night, to be partly invisible. Don’t look at her, they were saying, and, with her presence in a glass box in a hip hotel in the city, look at her.
The man didn’t care: he sat through the night, watching her watching nothing. He ignored the people who double-took when they saw her, the others who snapped with cameras. He drank twelve glasses of Bourbon until just after three a.m., when he took up his coat and slipped from the lobby into the red night.
After the shift finished early next morning, Alana climbed down the ladder, the bones in her feet making small clicks. She sat in the staff room drinking coffee and looking at her eyes in the mirror, the bags under them puffy, as if she had been up all night weeping.
“Can I get any extra shifts?” She spoke to Marl’s back as he sat at the computer. “I only have four.”
“No, old lady,” he said quietly. “All taken.” The first time he’d teased her about being the oldest one at the hotel she’d thought about it all night, there at work where the passing of years was frowned upon, and the next night in a bar with a friend where men stared at her, for now. How much longer had she got, two, maybe three years? Then back to being a waitress, perhaps, or if she was lucky, get a part as the mother in something.
The woman she bought fruit from had one eye a tiny bit larger than the other one, so that it appeared that her head was always slightly turned towards you. She had this hair, caramel, curly, the kind of hair women obsess over and imagine men do too, and her asymmetrical eyes sat on top of sculpted cheekbones. Her father had been Apple Man Pete, as everyone called him: fruit seller, graduate of the university of life, as he said, divorcee and alcoholic, as he didn’t.
“So, you work in that box,” the woman said, pressing the button on the till that had a picture of a nectarine on it, the first words she had ever spoken to Alana except a greeting or request for payment. “I read the article about it. The hotel where someone drowned, right?”
“Yes.” Alana couldn’t help looking at the woman’s hair. It was so long and thick that she had to sweep it back with her whole hand, like a windscreen wiper.
“You like working there?”
“Sure. It’s fine.”
“Well, a job’s a job, isn’t it. I didn’t exactly dream of ending up here …” The woman spread her fingers at the shop around her, at Apple Man Pete’s fruit empire.
“Well it’s … it’s nice in here.”
“It’s ok. It doesn’t matter what you do for a job, anyway? Does it?”
It felt good to feel the splintery ladder in her palm, the soft mattress of the box under her. Through the glass you could see the back of whoever was working on reception, and beyond, the foyer. On her second shift, Alana saw a woman mouthing at her “Get a real job,” and after that, she never caught anyone’s eye again. The glass was no longer transparent to her: it was a wall, or at least a closed door.
A few metres away, the yellow-faced man was drinking Aperol Spritz on a sofa. The option of calling his sponsor was ceasing to feel like an option, so much had his shame climbed ivy-like around him. The idea of it wavered somewhere in his consciousness acknowledged as the right thing to do and the thing that will not be done: the conversation you skirted around, the party you didn’t make it to. But anyway, here was the girl, appearing on the dot of eight. He knew that her moving into position was the last time she would move all night. Someone leaning on the reception desk took in the dips and peaks of her breasts and hips, but the man on the sofa only saw her body as a strangely silent instrument. Its being was incidental. It just was.
She had found that even at the moment when every muscle told you that it was impossible to remain in the same position for a second longer, there was much more beyond. You had to view it as an opportunity to go further, to find a little bit more resolution. It was easier if you took your mind somewhere entirely different. If you felt the pressure on your hip grow to a thudding pain, it helped to picture cool blue magic wands of relief flittering over the area. It was useful to make your breaths barely perceptible undulations. Ignore the thinking brain, a ballet teacher had said to her once. Concentrate on the feeling brain.
“A man left you a note,” Marl called the next morning as she got changed, and pushed it under the door. On it was handwritten, badly, How delicious to disappear! Alana screwed it up and threw it in the bin then took it out again and smoothed it out on the table, and stared at it.
At home, she leaned on the worktop and looked at the four empty calendar windows until her next shift. Each month’s image was seasonal, helped put you back on track however asleep or out of tune you had been. I am looking at the calendar with its hot July greens, she said to herself. I am listening to the loud tick of the kitchen clock. The logic of the box was useful for life, too. Just learning to be in it. Not wishing it away until – what? He had said: everyone needs a kitchen clock, and she hadn’t believed him but let him knock a nail into the wall anyway. And then, once it was up, she realised how often she had walked out of the room or scrabbled for her phone to find the time before he put it there. He was right, and she had liked looking at it, liked the time saved, liked his link to it.
She put a book and a blanket in a bag and walked down the road to the small garden square packed that afternoon with everyone else in the neighbourhood. She read the same page three times, then threw the book down and closed her eyes. Whenever she did so recently, the details of the box swerved towards her, the mattress on stilts inside, like a grown-up’s bunk-bed; the cushions scattered with birds embroidered on them; the small wooden ledge at the far side to hold a glass of water.
“Hi.” Before she opened them she felt a sinking feeling, directed towards whoever it was standing over her. “Enjoying the sun?”
Alana sat up to meet the eyes of the woman from the fruit shop, not in her normal t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms but a flowery summery dress, with her mighty hair down around her shoulders. It was strange, like seeing a teacher at a party.
“Hi. Yes. Lovely, isn’t it.”
“So, you live round here?” The woman had flicked her dress strap up where it had fallen, a micro-movement, but Alana saw it.
“Yes, around the corner. And you?”
“I live above my dad’s shop.”
“Oh, of course.”
“He left things in a bit of a mess, actually. I’ve just come back from the solicitors. I mean financially, admin-wise. He was disorganised. A nightmare, really.”
“Right. He seemed like a nice man.”
“He was … he was a nice man.”
“You said. Just after he died. In the shop. You said sorry then.”
“Did I? I can’t remember.”
“That’s ok. Thanks.” The fruit girl looked away, and started blushing before she spoke again. “I’m just going to get a drink. I don’t suppose you’d like to come?”
Alana hoped her refusal hadn’t sounded rude. When she got home it was that awkward time just before early evening, too early to make dinner and too late to make anything of the day. Just her and the tick of the clock. The worst thing, when she looked back at the time with him, was its unspectacular end, the lack of drama to latch onto, only the barely perceptible sputtering of an engine in its last throes. She sat at the kitchen table, looking at the chipped nail polish on one hand, thinking she should take it off and start over again.
A few days later, before her shift, she went to the supermarket to buy her fruit, to queue with everyone else who was buying gardening equipment and TVs and summer shoes. It was when she came out that she saw the man was slumped in a doorway, grey-faced, wearing an expensive suit which he had been sick all over. He looked familiar, but then there were so many like him at the Falcon (suits, alcohol, pretending not to be afraid). She touched his foot with her foot and his chest heaved. After a few seconds she moved away.
The journey to the hotel seemed to take forever because she was watching its progress so closely, clocking each street sign twenty metres before she reached it, spotting the reflection of the evening sun from the side of the Falcon a mile before she pushed open its door. She hated this building, its meaningless name, its glass walls, its mediocre stories. There was something tight in her stomach, a knot, or something more menacing, wolf-like, like a warning that something terrible was going to happen. But the time finally came when she could climb up the ladder, shut out the arduous night.
A few minutes later Apple Man Pete’s daughter sat the man up against the wall and, with a tissue from her pocket, wiped some of the vomit from his chin. He was babbling, slurring it’s over as they waited for the ambulance. Her dad had been a similar drunk, placid and sad, coming home with his keys gone and his wallet gone and his wedding ring gone, because he had passed out in an alley and woke up feeling the worst he had ever felt, would ever feel, even when he was dying. This man still had a wallet but it was hollowed out, with only air in the bulging pockets, an echo of wealth. Scattered next to the wallet was a sheaf of business cards with different names on them. Rory McArdle, Civil Litigation said one; Amy Carner, Psychodynamic Therapy on another. Yoga at the Vale of Health. Ndeji Granger, Indian Head Massage and Reiki. Wellbeing and mindfulness training at the Oak House. A scrap of paper sat amongst them, two sentences written on them:
This time I choose to love for once with all my intelligence.
What if, grand statements of independence aside, there is nothing better than to love and be loved?
When the ambulance took him, she stood and watched until she could no longer see its creeping path through the traffic. She wished she had said in the man’s ear: it is constantly in our nature to be asleep and then awake. She thought about walking past the hotel again, maybe even going in the lobby, but her fear clapped its hand over her. It would be unbearable to be seen. Unbearable not to be seen. For nothing to happen. For nothing to keep happening.
In the box Alana closed her eyes, let her mind take her to a time long before things had gone wrong. She hadn’t known him well that night: the lack of definition of the thing that was happening between them was what was fizzing in the air, its question mark thudding over their bodies as they lay on the floor by the French doors. A bottle of wine waited in between their wrists, and Alana saw the tips of the man’s fingers drum the cold bottle intermittently. She said his name as she propped herself up to look at him, and at the sound of it, Alana in the box felt the full force of homesickness and misguided hope shudder all over her. Every time, then, this fantasist’s reaction, a force of joy and not enough heartbreak. She lay still, inside the memory, feeling heat spread from the back of her throat to the top of her legs. That night went on all night in her night. They didn’t sleep. She didn’t sleep. When morning came, Marl had to knock on the glass to remind her to come out.
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