In her former life, Clare was a sales rep for ThyssenKrupp. Her area was elevator technologies and her territory was the Midwest. She liked the job because it involved an endless amount of travel to seemingly anonymous places. She had been to Nebraska 47 times. What was there to see in Nebraska? A surprising amount, really. She knew where to get the best steak in Omaha; when she cut into it, blood pooled on the white plate. She had seen dawn turn the plains as lustrous and vast as an ocean. Once, late at night, she parked her rental car on the side of the road and walked into a cornfield. She stood on a dirt path, surrounded by dark stalks, and imagined a harrowing chase through the corn that culminated in her murder at the hands of a masked killer with a knife. In the night sky, she spotted the red flash of planes through gossamer clouds, and if she listened very carefully, more carefully than she had listened to anything in months or maybe even in years, she was able to make out the dull roar of their passing.
She got back into her rental car and drove away and wondered if this was what people meant when they talked about mindfulness.
Early in her career she learned that one of the most important rules of travel was this: The answer to nearly everything could be found in the signs. This way to baggage claim. This way to the ticket counter. This way to Cleveland. This way to Omaha. This way to the hotel bar. Travel was one of the few arenas in life where clear and correct direction was so readily at hand.
Lately she had been tasked with selling a new kind of cable to fine hotels and high-rise office buildings and factories. This cable was made of carbon fiber and allowed elevators to travel twice as fast as they could with steel.
They lived in New Scotland, a town on the outskirts of Albany. In their condominium, she kept a small rolling suitcase in the bedroom closet, stocked with miniature toiletries, exercise clothes, an inflatable neck pillow, and the book she brought with her on every flight but could never seem to finish: The Two Faces of January, by Patricia Highsmith. It wasn’t an especially long novel, but on planes she could only read a few paragraphs before the words filled her with a crippling and inexplicable dread, driving the book back down into the depths of her shoulder bag. It was not so much the story that unsettled her, but the hidden things she sensed quivering under the surface. Subtext, she supposed this was called, and she did not care for it. Every time she saw her suitcase in the bedroom closet, tucked behind a mesh laundry bin, she imagined it was waiting for her second, secret self.
She traveled so frequently it was not uncommon for her to wake in the middle of the night and think for a moment, Where am I? She did not find this disconcerting, even when it happened in her own bed, but once she made the mistake of mentioning those midnight thoughts to her husband and he looked at her like she was terminally ill.
The travel had long been a point of contention between them. Why bother being married if you’re always leaving? A reasonable question, and she couldn’t say that she had an answer, beyond the demands of her work. She wanted to be married and she wanted to leave; the two did not seem mutually exclusive. She had this second, secret self that she didn’t know how to share with anyone, and when alone, that self came out into the open.
In the months before his death, her husband’s own secret self started coming out into the open too; she could only assume this other self had been waiting inside him all along. The year of the great change: He was the same and he was different. The way he looked when asleep changed. His face used to be smooth and expressionless, almost masklike, but then one night she found him sleeping with lips parted into a wide, unsettling smile. He switched coffee mugs, trading out The Exorcist for the ghoulish face of Michael Myers. He was newly skittish around dogs, he stopped adding salt to his food, he stopped eating bananas, his pace on the sidewalk changed. He used to be a brisk, impatient walker and then one day he began moving so slowly and contemplatively it was as though every tree branch was a source of wonder. Clare struggled to imagine what, forty years into a life, would cause a person to suddenly change the way they walked. There were alien, interminable silences when she called from the road, and when she was home he took long, solitary strolls in the evening hours, a symptom that would eventually lead to his demise.
Another symptom: He started demanding to know what she did on the road, how she accounted for all those hours alone, no matter how many times she told him the simple truth: in a hotel room her favorite thing in all the world was to switch off every light and everything that made a sound — TV, phone, air conditioner, faucets — and sit naked on the polyester comforter and count the breaths as they left her body.
Naked! her husband would shout, as though she had provided him with damning evidence. He had been an angry person for as long as she had known him, but it was a secretive anger; most people found him loose and light-hearted. “Easygoing” — that was the word people used, and in time she became suspicious of anyone who could be described in such terms. What was so easy about going?
Naked and alone, she would say back. Naked and alone.
As a married couple, they’d had perfect years and they’d had shit years, but she had never in her life experienced a year that so thoroughly dismantled her with confusion.
On her next trip, she thought about what he would see if he ever were to trail her on the road. A woman marking up sales reports with a pink highlighter. A woman watching workout infomercials with the volume on mute. A woman eating room-service quesadillas in the bathtub, instead of reading that novel she claimed to be nearly finished with. A woman doing a little exercise routine — squats and sit-ups, bicep curls with bottled waters — completed with the hope that he would notice the smooth lines when he put his hands on her body. A woman breathing naked on the toilet seat. A woman breathing naked in an armchair. A woman breathing naked before the bathroom mirror, in the kind of lighting that could make a person reconsider every choice they had ever made in life. A woman breathing naked in the dark.
Torture the women, Hitchcock was reported to have said when a young director asked him for advice.
Before Richard submitted his papers for publication, he asked her to read them aloud. That was how she became familiar with his theories. They would sit together at the kitchen table, an amber finger of whiskey in mismatched juice glasses, and he would take notes while she read. She learned about Final Girls, those lone female survivors, and Terrible Places. The wilderness hut of Jason Voorhees, where he stored the mummified head of his mother. The subterranean slaughterhouse in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the Terrible Place, the most hideous part of the nightmare unfolded. In the Terrible Place, the killer and the Final Girl were forced into their ultimate confrontation.
The papers were very long and sometimes it would take hours for her to finish. She tried to concentrate on every word, feel the shape of each syllable in her mouth. Clare understood this tradition might have appeared strange or even sinister to outsiders, but she prized the chance to build together a sublanguage that ran, invisible and untranslatable, under the surface of the world.
At the time of his death, Richard was working on a book titled The Nightmare Is Near: Urban Spaces in Horror, an expansion of a paper presented at an important conference in Denmark. Her husband had grown up in small-town Arizona; for him, cities were a continuous well of fascination and dread. In rural horror, the terror lay in a literalized abyss, in the unseen nightmare that awaited deep in the desert or down that cave or out in the woods; you feared what you could not see. The urban gaze, however, was naturally multidimensional — the subway rumbling underneath the sidewalk; the gleaming peaks of skyscrapers; the neighbor’s open window; the communal backyards — and so people tended to be confident in the accuracy of their sight. Yet who among them considered the networks of tunnels that ran under the subway or the basements that lurked under basements, the worlds stacked upon worlds stacked upon worlds. Who among them considered how these cities came into being in the first place. The layers of history accrued on the streets people walked to get to work or waltzed down to get to bars, the streets where murder victims bled and the drunk pissed and the homeless slept. From these unexamined quarters, her husband believed, horror sprung.
She had been invited to join him in Denmark but could not go because of an equally important sales conference in Minneapolis. When his attention was seized by the Festival of New Latin American Cinema and the inaugural screening of Yuniel Mata’s film, she had received an invitation to Havana. A bridge was being offered, a bridge to the place where he now stood, and so what was she to do but say yes.
Clare never did have an affair on the road, but she did accumulate a lot of secrets about the odd things she had heard and seen. There were the dentures she discovered in the back pocket on a flight to Toledo, later removed by a flight attendant wearing blue rubber gloves. People, the flight attendant said, the imposter teeth suspended between her fingers. The midwestern hotels that could have belonged to a horror set, with their fluorescent hallways and lurching elevators and the eerie rattle of the ice machine in the middle of the night. The phone that rang on the hour in Wichita; when she picked up no one was on the line. The receptionist in Cincinnati who told Clare that once a woman fell into such a deep sleep in this hotel, she never woke up. She didn’t die, the receptionist clarified, slipping a room key into its little envelope, but went into some kind of coma and was taken out on a stretcher to a hospital somewhere and would likely be in this hospital for the rest of her life, on account of her having never woken up.
"I don’t think that story is good for business," Clare said when the receptionist handed her the room key.
The receptionist shrugged. The name tag pinned to her blouse read SAMANTHA. The more Clare looked at the tag, the more she got the uneasy feeling that SAMANTHA was not her real name.
"Some people think it’s the best story they ever heard," Samantha/Not Samantha said.
The very strangest thing happened in a hotel room in Omaha, in her beloved state of Nebraska. She opened the bedside drawer and next to the King James Bible lay a fingernail — so small that it could have only belonged to a pinkie, but fully intact and flawless in its shape. Her first impulse was to pick up the nail and swallow it, a thought so startling she slammed the drawer shut and turned on the TV and tried to watch an episode of Law & Order in which a man was suspected of killing both his first and second wives. Even though the cops found hard evidence, the killer ended up going free on a legal technicality and marrying for the third time.
She couldn’t forget about the fingernail. She fell asleep with the drawer open and all through the night, she would wake up and turn on the bedside lamp and peer down at the nail. The light gave it a pearly translucence, made it look like a precious thing on display.
In hotels, she tried to be a respectful guest. Before leaving, she closed all the drawers and piled up the towels in the bathroom and recycled the paper coffee cups, but that morning she found she could not close the bedside drawer, could not seal the nail up in darkness again. As she wheeled her suitcase into the carpeted hall, she wondered what kind of person would abandon to a hotel room drawer such a perfect specimen of their existence.
She was three days back from a trip when her husband was struck by the car and killed. Her flight had landed in Albany at midnight and when she returned to their condominium, she took a steaming hot shower and ate ice cubes in front of the TV. She fell asleep on the living room carpet, in a net of fluorescence, and when she woke in the morning he had left for school. She changed and drove to her office on Lake Street. She rode a sleek, fast elevator to the thirteenth floor. She ate a tuna fish sandwich at her desk. The afternoon brought a brief, driving rain.
“There’s something I want to tell you,” her husband said that evening, before he left for his walk. He had the lanky build of a track runner, though she had only ever seen him run to catch a train. Long fingers, high cheekbones, deep-set eyes. His hair was a honeyed blond, faded to corn silk at the temples. He was holding a yellow parka. His turtleneck was tucked in a little too tight. She noticed he was wearing the braided leather belt that had belonged to his brother. She had no idea where he went or what he thought about. Instead she respected his privacy, his desire for whatever solitary strangeness he was seeking, though later it would occur to her that maybe she had misjudged the situation and solitude wasn’t what he wanted at all. Maybe he had been waiting for her to take an interest, inquire about his route, ask if he wanted company. In the months before his accident, she imagined he must have sensed himself plummeting toward some kind of end, must have felt the clawing panic that hits when you sense a part of your life is about to break off and drift away like an ice floe. Who are you? they seemed to always be whispering to each other, in this peculiar middle passage of their lives. What are you becoming? Neither of them had any idea he was on the edge of losing it all.
She said, “Tell away, my love.”
She had just finished lining up travel toiletries on the kitchen counter, to take stock of what needed replenishing. There was a tiny lipstick and a tiny soap and a tiny razor.
“You came out of nowhere, asleep in front of the TV.” He pointed at the living room carpet, as though she had just gotten up. For the last year, his expression had suggested he was thinking deeply about a problem he could not share. “When I first came out and saw you there, it looked like you were unconscious. You scared me.”
She uncapped the lipstick, stared down at the crimson nub. She could hear the lurking anger in his voice, hidden but no less deadly.
“I was unconscious,” she said. “It’s called being asleep.”
“Clare,” he said. “We need to talk.”
She put her hands on her hips. She stared down at her toiletries. “About what?”
She told herself that she was not unwilling.
A door slammed. She looked up and found that he had left the room.
That night, he came back from his walk. The following night he did not. Two hours passed and she got a phone call from Memorial and when she got there, he was in surgery, and when the surgeon came out to see her, he was dead. Hit and run. Catastrophic internal bleeding. In the waiting room a TV was mounted on the wall and talk show hosts were playing golf of a miniature green. A man in a suit sank a white ball and the studio audience cheered. Scientists had discovered a planet believed to be larger than earth. A skull was found in a grocery in L.A., posed among the lettuces. Robots were being trained to read human minds. On the intercom a doctor was being paged. Clare couldn’t understand the surgeon. The bright white floor rumbled underneath her. She wanted to demand all these noises be stopped. “He fought hard,” the surgeon said, and for a moment she hallucinated him adding, But he was no Final Girl.
That one call from Memorial led to a succession of calls — to her husband’s parents, in Arizona; to her own parents in Florida. Her mother had flourished in old age. She gardened and waterskied. She fostered American Bobtails and had taken to calling herself a “cat fancier.” At the time of Richard’s funeral, they had four Bobtails living with them in Jacksonville. Her father had no say in this cat fancying because the unalterable slide of dementia had transformed him into a furious, bewildered stranger. His own father had died from the same disease, with the same cruelly rapid onset; the end had been encoded inside him all along. There were no siblings to call. She was an only child and her husband’s older brother had committed suicide by leaping from a bridge in California at thirty-four. After her husband got that call, he wept through the night, in their bed, and she held him as tightly as she could. Looking back, she supposed that had been one miracle of their marriage — even if a person was on the brink of swallowing fingernails and the other was thinking deeply about a problem they could not share, there was still someone to hold you as you wept through the night.
At the funeral, they kept the casket closed, the polished dome heaped with lilies, and instead of sobbing she vomited before the service and after, over and over into the funeral home toilet, even though she hadn’t eaten a proper meal in days. She kept seeing flashes from pregnancy possession horror, Mia Farrow eating raw chicken livers in Rosemary’s Baby. She felt like someone had carved her heart out of her chest and then turned her loose to stumble through a dark forest on a frigid night. I was here and now I’m going there. Where? As a child, her father had read her The Death of Ivan Ilyich and those words bloomed in her mind like a miserable flower. Where was her husband now? Where was that where?
After the service, she wandered her own condo vaguely aware that her dress was crooked and her hair was tangled and her skin was pale and hot and gleaming, like she had been standing in front of a vegetable mister. There was a long run in her pantyhose and her breath stank. Her mother had cornered her father in the living room and was trying to feed him coffee cake, her pants feathered with cat hair. A month after her father’s diagnosis, in the frozen middle of February, he had called Clare late one night. She’d answered in a hotel room in Omaha, standing in front of the TV in a T-shirt and socked feet. He told her that no one got through life without committing at least one unforgivable act and what he said next left her unable to speak in anything but sentence fragments for days; a new, broken language took hold. Her mother-in-law, now son-less, kept handing her plastic glasses of sweet white wine, which she kept abandoning on tables and counters. Her mother-in-law had insisted on a catered gathering, and now a waiter with a blond mustache was delivering her a butter cookie on a paper napkin with a slight bow, as though she was some kind of honored guest. DO YOU HAVE A BLOWTORCH? she wanted to ask her mother-in-law. DO YOU HAVE ANY KETAMINE? Clare had a feeling her mother-in-law wished she would be a more graceful widow, that she would squeeze hands and kiss cheeks and thank people for their flowers and condolence cards and phone calls and prayers, even though the offer of prayer could be seen as adversarial if the offeree was not, in fact, religious. People who allegedly knew her kept resting hands on her shoulders and, in low, careful voices, asking about her plans. Would she like to take a walk or a yoga class or go see a movie? A movie! Would it be helpful if they brought over a casserole? For days she had been staying up all night watching Richard’s extensive collection of horror movies, and by then every parking lot and alleyway and kitchen looked like an ideal place to be murdered.
WHAT IN THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? seemed like the only rational response to these people who allegedly knew her.
Or: IN A HORROR MOVIE, YOU WOULD BE THE FIRST TO BE KILLED. YOU ARE THAT FUCKING DUMB.
I’m going, she kept hearing herself say. I’m gone. ●
Illustrations by Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News
Excerpted from THE THIRD HOTEL by Laura van den Berg, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on August 6th 2018. Copyright © by Laura van den Berg. All rights reserved.
Laura van den Berg is an acclaimed novelist and short story writer. Her novel The Third Hotel was published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in August.