Fiction / August 2008 (Issue 4)


by William Kimzey

The key unlocked room 1834 at the J W Marriott. At least it did a year ago. 1834 was a corner room, five star, business class. There was a switch by the bedside table, I remembered, which opened curtains exposing Central and the harbor beyond it. Someone else would be in the room tonight. Perhaps some lone business man; maybe some couple, on their honeymoon, entwined in each others arms. Or lovers betraying their spouses.

I ducked out of a dinner honoring the presenters at an economic development forum. My talk, "The Death of Distance," argued that Internet technologies enabled a business' customers, labor, capital to be sourced from anywhere and everywhere. There were at least three other talks on the exact same subject.

Now it is after nine. I join a few others on the elevator. A man by the panel of numbers asks me what floor I would like.

I had kept the key with my cuff links, and when I packed for this trip, I took the key with me. I didn't have a plan, but I couldn't bear leaving it behind.

"Thirty please", I say. I choose a floor not yet selected.

I like the feel of the solid key. The weight of it in my pocket. Like car keys for a particular make and model, there are only finite unique ones. Twenty or less. So you can walk down a hotel hallway, try your key in consecutive rooms, and eventually one of them will open.

The last time we were here I was charming the partners at our Joint Venture's annual shareholder meeting. My wife Lisa came along to shop. The serious shopping was for jewelry mostly, portable, easy to get past customs. But this time, she had said, maybe she'd find an antique Qing ceramic. If she spent enough money, I thought, then there was a decent chance it was real. Lisa was unpacking her little party purse from her suitcase, when she found the key. This was back home in New Jersey.

I go down the hallway, trying the key in consecutive doors. The eighth one unlocks. That metallic sound of the lock opening paralyzes me. I stand at the unlocked door, willing myself to open it, to do something rash. I put my ear to the door, listening for voices, TV, water running. Even silence is not an answer. Is someone napping, drugged by jet lag? Or maybe toweling off from a shower?

The elevator chimes at the end of the hallway. I verge on panic.

A beautiful couple walks toward me hand in hand. She is smiling as he whispers something in her ear. They are dressed to party. He is a gweilo, a clean cut westerner like me, wearing a dark suit, white shirt, scarlet tie. She is Chinese. Spaghetti straps hold a tiny red dress against her body. She has long, silky smooth, black hair. Matching red lips match her dress, her shoes. I never tire of that look. She probably views me similarly, superficially attractive. When her dark eyes meet mine, she holds the gaze for some reason, well past when it is normal to look away. There is a challenge behind her eyes.

I smile at them and push open the door and enter the room.

The door shuts behind me. I stand still, in the darkness, waiting to see if the couple comes to the door. I hear hushed voices in the hallway, maybe he laughs, and a different door opens, and then seconds later shuts. I flip the door guard locked.

The room is empty but I can tell it is occupied. As my eyes adjust I can see a suitcase on the bench by the armoire. Opening the armoire to the hidden TV and refrigerator, I take a whiskey from a little shelf. I twist off the top, sip it neat from the bottle.

I go over to the bedside table and flip the switch to open the curtains. This view, like the one I remember, is dominated by the harbor. Star ferries, busy transiting pedestrians to and from Kowloon, are little jade green cupcakes with white icing on the inky black water. Beyond the harbor, the majestic Peninsula Hotel presides over the skyline, the pink Museum of Art in its foreground; docked at Ocean Terminal, a cruise ship is brightly lit and teeming with activity. A KLM jet approaches Chep Lap Kok, pilots alert for wind shear alarms.

Opening the curtains doesn't make a very loud statement. It could easily be mistaken for Housekeeping’s actions, setting a romantic mood with the stunning, vertiginous view, a pair of bittersweet chocolates on the pillow, bed clothes turned down, ready. A long time ago, crisp, clean white sheets like these would incite Lisa to undress in front of me, discard her clothes carelessly on the floor. When was the last time I fought her bra strap in my haste and impatient passion? Or bit her ear too hard, or trapped her arms over her head? I don't give in to my passion or rage anymore.

There is a book beside the bed, Jude the Obscure. I open it to the bookmark, obviously the woman's, it smells of jasmine. I read a paragraph. It is impenetrable.

I move to the bathroom, a huge tub its centerpiece. Her cobalt blue kimono hangs on a hook. Two toothbrushes stand together in wedded bliss, in a glass beside the sink. Heavy white towels are stacked on the dark granite counter top. I open her makeup bag; it's stuffed, like a stocking filled with miniature Christmas gifts each wrapped in shiny paper or foil. Exotic. Enticing. His shaving kit is less mysterious to me. I finish the whiskey.

The shower stall is lined with polished limestone; gold fixtures match the tub and sink.  I take a bar of bath soap out of its box and smell the nutmeg. I always know I am home, on the road, when I smell that scent. I am loyal to that scent.

Back in the bedroom, I look around for something more I can do, something I can take, something harmless really, maybe a pen, maybe lipstick or something from the suitcase. I open it and see light sparkly sweaters, blouses, a couple pairs of slacks. And neatly folded, almost heart shape, her panties and matching bras, are carefully secured in a ziplock bag.

I hear a key in the lock. A tentative knock on the door; the door opens against the guard.

"Housekeeping," a woman's voice says.

"Just a moment," I answer. "Ten minutes."

The door clicks shut again, and I hear the housekeeper moving down the hall. I slow my breathing, settle my heart down. I find a diary in the suitcase. I open it and smell jasmine again. Or just the faint impression of jasmine. As I thumb through it I see a few English words sprinkled in from time to time—names of cities, places. Most of the calligraphy is neat, but occasionally it starts to sprawl.

I go to the walk-in closet, and see his suit, a selection of luxurious ties, shirts pressed and folded in tissue paper on the shelf, a pair of shoes. On the floor beside the safe is a briefcase. I try it and find it locked. I punch in the combination I always use on hotel safes; it doesn't open. On the left, hangers hold a couple of dresses. A laundry bag, in the corner, contains some underwear, a dress shirt of his. Socks. On the floor, on her side, are several pairs of shoes.

I decide to take one of her shoes. A tai tai shoe, Lisa and her girl friends would say. Tiny, beaded, open-toed slide. Her pedicured nails glistening with ruby red polish there for all to see, to admire, even to covet. Lisa lost a shoe once like this once. She never told me where. I found it myself, in my colleague's room, sticking out from under his bed. Mike and I were taking a call with the States from his room. He might have thought me more bristly than usual on the call, but then, he knew I didn't suffer fools, and the guys back home were always fools.

I slip her shoe into my pocket, its kitten heel poking me in the thigh, give a final look out the window, and then unlock the door and open it. The woman in the tiny red dress is doing the same, from the room across the hall. We are both surprised. I notice her lipstick is smudged a bit, but everything, elsewhere, seems perfectly in place. I give her my pleasant smile, neighbors.

She brushes across me and into the doorway. "It's my room," she says. "You better get out of here. My husband is coming up soon."

As she is shutting the door, I grab her wrist. "That wasn't your husband, across the hall?" Gravity pulls me into the room with her. The whole building seems to be tilting towards the harbor. I let the door shut behind me and twist her arm behind her back. I pull her to me, against me, and kiss her hard on the lips. I taste cigarette; I smell the smoke in her hair. Her lips are ice cold.

She jerks her head back. "Let go of my arm," she says through her teeth. The space between our lips is a billion light years wide, but a gap like that can close instantaneously, like wind shear.

I had spent a lot of time deconstructing last year's trip, finding the time when the Lisa and Mike could have been alone. It had to have been while I was waiting in the rooftop lounge. She was already started, a cosmopolitan half-empty when Mike and I arrived late from our office. At a certain point, probably while I was ordering my second drink, she left saying she needed to freshen up; she said she'd meet us back here at the bar, before we left for dinner. Mike left shortly thereafter saying he had to send a last email. I was blind as a fucking bat.

Maybe it's the same lounge where tiny red dress's husband is sitting now, while her lips melt into mine, like bourbon poured over shaved ice. Her hips against mine; her lips become demanding.

Was it all a fantasy? That she returned the kiss?

"You're hurting my arm," she breathes.

I release her arm but still hold her against me. I feel the muscles of the small of her back, taut through the silk of her dress.

On the plane ride here, I had been struggling to understand why it had happened. What did Lisa have locked up, so well hidden from me? What had I missed? We'd been together a long time. Lisa slept beside me; frequently we made love. I kept the knowledge of her infidelity to myself, while she kept the house and ferried the kids around after school.

"Can I ask you something?" I say. "Can I ask you if you fucked that guy across the hall?" On our anniversary, on Valentine's day, Lisa and I had nice dinners out together. She told me often she loved me. I sensed truth in that. I was untethered now, slowly drifting out of love with her.

"Yes," the red dress says.

I still hold her. "With your husband downstairs? Waiting for you? Why? Lust? Danger? Boredom? Love?"

"Those are my choices?" she challenges me.

"What's to stop me right now, from throwing you down on the bed and ripping that dress off of you?"

"Are you that kind of man?" her eyes ablaze.

No. Not yet. Not that way.

She takes the shoe from my pants pocket, sending pinballs of voltage ricocheting all around my body. "You're a crazy man," she says, and pushes away from me. She goes into the bathroom and turns on the bath, putting the shoe down on the side o f the tub. I watch her adjust the water temperature, and pour oil into the tub. She turns to see me staring at her. "I told him I wanted to soak in the tub."

I am startled by a knock on the door. "Room Service." She gestures for me to get the door, shutting the bathroom door behind me. I open it, expecting her husband, but a room service waiter in a white suit wheels a cart in. A bottle of Veuve Cliquot is standing in a sweating bucket of ice. The gold label. A vintage. "Would you like me to open it?" he asks.

"Please," both the waiter and I listen to the water running in the bath. He meets my eyes, and with only the slightest nod, indicates his admiration. He tears off the foil, and twists the cork under a white cloth, easing it open and letting the accumulated pressure hiss out. He pours a glass, I put my hand over the mouth of the other. The bubbles swarm up, over the rim, then subside. He tops it competently, and gives me the bill to sign. I tip him generously.

I tap on the bathroom door with the champagne flute, and yes, "Come in," is what she says. I walk over to the tub. Her hair pinned up, she is buried up to her neck in bubbles. "My husband does indulge the grand gestures; his idea of getting me in the mood."

The bathroom mirror is steaming up. I hand her the glass. As she reaches for it she reveals the nape of her neck, wet with soapy water. "You're not having some?" She takes a sip, breathes in deeply, her eyes closed, her nose buried in the glass. "I love champagne." I think I see a hint of knee when she settles back in the water, her motion disturbing the blanket of bubbles.

"What were you doing in my room besides taking my shoe?" she asks. I watch intently the bubbles brushing against her blushing shoulder.

"Your diary—it was open."

"You don't read Chinese do you?" The bubbles ebb and flow in time with her breath. "I didn't think so. Nor does my husband." She shuts her eyes and relaxes against the back of the tub. The water whispers.

She sips the champagne. Her lipstick smudges the glass.

I sit down on the side of the tub. We let the silence grow, then blossom.

"She betrayed me. In this hotel. With my colleague." The red dress and slip are folded carefully, forming an inconceivably small mound by the towels. "My wife Lisa was beautiful. Crazy. Crazy and beautiful like you."

I catch her eyes watching mine in the mirror. They pull me back to her, to the tub, to the body I imagine under the surface. "We met carpooling to work, a mutual friend introduced us. On the ride home, stuck in traffic, and then at a café later that night, we talked and talked. We agreed on everything. Religion, politics…that work sucked. She was smart, funny, but the big thing was how much she needed me. After we made love that first night, she cried inconsolably. I still feel her tears against my neck."

"What are you doing here?"

Like a key, a perfect fit for its matching lock, she was my Juliet. I thought I could rely on that.

"What do you want?" She disturbs the water again, lifting a foot and resting it on the side of the tub.

I watch water drip from her heel and form a puddle. It expands, inching towards my slacks. I fight my desire to take her foot in my hands, to massage the space between her toes. "You're not what I would call risk averse, are you?" I ask. Her fearlessness is attractive and compelling in every way.

"At least you're curious. At least you try to steal a look at my diary behind my back." Her lips part and she takes another sip of champagne. "The guy across the hall, the guy I just slept with, it was revenge. I derived no joy from it." I realize how desperately thirsty I am. "Are you going to scrub my back, or not?" she asks.

"Those are my choices?" I am making my decision. I could collapse into her hungry, voracious eyes. I lean over and kiss her gently on her lips, absorbing the electricity without flinching.

"I'm Sha Lun. My husband calls me Sharon." She holds out her hand to shake. I imagine it caressing my cheek. "What's your name?"


"Ken, you can keep my shoe." She hands it to me.

I bow to her, and accept her gift in my two hands.

"The room key, it's dangerous. You should leave it with me."

I leave the key and walk out and down the hallway. The housekeeper is there. She stares at me. The alcove by the elevator is filled with fragrance. A large bouquet sits on a black lacquered table, in front of a mirror. Behind peach calla lilies and cream colored jasmine, I adjust my tie. I take my handkerchief and brush a smudge of lipstick off my lips. The elevator arrives, and as I get on, a guy gets off. He is Asian, but his smile, his haircut, his friendly greeting as he passes is southern Californian. I slip back out as the doors shut, letting the elevator drift silently to the floors below, and watch him go down the hall. He stops in front of Sha Lun's room, tries his key, then knocks.

After a moment the door opens, inviting the poor soul in I imagine the cobalt blue kimono. The housekeeper glares at me, again, as if she is going to come and push the down button herself, but she turns back to her work.

"All right," I say, a bit too loud. "I'm going." And I push the down button.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
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