One Night In Rapid City was first published in Bull, in October of 2018.
It’s your everyday hotel room. Two queen beds with plain tan comforters. A chair in the corner under a lamp, its cover matching the drapes on either side of the tall window that looks down six stories to the parking lot. A large flat screen television on top of an unused dresser, the time of occupancy not long enough to warrant taking the clothes out of the bag on the floor. A desk against the wall with a simple plastic and vinyl desk chair that can be purchased in bulk from any office supply company. A tiny bathroom through a door near the entrance. Bad low cost artwork hangs on the walls. Geometric shapes in inoffensive shades of brown. The door to the outside world is bolted. The chance of a stray murderer coming into the hotel and picking that one random door out of the hundreds just like it apparently too high to risk not locking it.
He sits at the desk in front of his laptop, looking aimlessly at websites to try and entertain himself as much as possible. The television blares with some shitty movie on HBO. It doesn’t matter what’s on. He watches HBO because he doesn’t have it at home. The curtains are open, allowing a view of the large windowless concrete block that’s the building across the street. Just one more distraction to help pass the time. All of the work for the day has been done. The meetings have been attended. Emails have been answered. There is nothing left to do. He’s just wasting time now, waiting for something to happen. He knows nothing is going to happen.
Through the locked door is a balcony. Below is the lobby, restaurant, and bar. He can hear the sounds of his fellow conference goers and other mixed guests. Drinking and chatting. A constant murmur in the background, occasionally punctuated by a sharp burst of laughter which cuts across the air. Nice people, assholes, strangers, and colleagues. None of them can really be called friends.
His head is a little cloudy. His belly is full of various hors d'oeuvres, puff pastries, and shrimp. How many shrimp should one really eat when this far from the ocean? Apparently quite a few. How many beers did he drink? Was it four, five, or six? Six seems like a low number. Back in college six was the number of beers he drank before heading out for the night. Just a warm up exercise. He doesn’t drink that much beer now. It’s probably a good thing. Whatever the exact number, it was exactly one less than what it would take to get truly drunk. He’s reached an age where professional and personal require two separate lives.
The entire day has been spent making small talk and politely laughing at bad jokes with people he barely knows. He needs a rest. He needs to be alone. He doesn’t mind social interactions. He even enjoys them. He just needs to be alone now and again. He needs to be by himself. Alone with his own thoughts. It’s the only way to recharge his batteries. It’s always been that way, for as long as he can remember.
The movie plays on. Some aliens in a department store. A band of misfits saves the day. The ending is just as bad as the rest. Who green lights this shit? He sits in the desk chair, butt ass naked. His ass cheeks make little indents in the cushion. His bare skin sticks to the vinyl. He’s naked because he’s often naked. He enjoys the feeling of sitting around without clothes on. He doesn’t tell people about it. It’s just something he does. The curtains are open. No one can see him. The hotel is the tallest building around.
In his head he makes up a little story. A story where he’s naked in a hotel room because he doesn’t have a chance to do such things at home. That’s the appeal. Similar to the HBO, it’s another silver lining of staying in a hotel in a city surrounded by strangers. You can do whatever you want as long as you're behind the safety of the locked door. He can’t be naked at home. He has responsibilities. It would be inappropriate for a grown man to gallivant around his house naked in front of his wife and kids.
None of this is true. He gallivants around his house naked all the time. Gallivant, that’s a funny word, you don’t hear it that often, but here it is just randomly popping into his head. A little linguistic surprise. He’ll probably use it in a conversation sometime tomorrow. Once a word gets into his head it’s hard to get it out. He doesn’t have a wife or kids. The whole naked thing a may be a little weird, but it’s okay from a legal aspect.
It’s a nice story. It’s a nice thought. It feels good to imagine the other person in his head whose life took a different direction. The man he thought he would be at thirty back when he was twenty, then twenty-five, then twenty-seven, then twenty-eight. The man in his head may not be as successful in his job. The man may not have traveled as much, or seen so much of the world. He really doesn’t know much about the man. He’s never given the man in his head a full back story beyond having a family.
He thinks about getting up and getting a snack from the vending machine. He ate dinner already, but he’s still hungry. It would be nice to have a little snack, but of course then he would have to leave the room. If he left the room he would have to put on some clothes. In all fairness, he doesn’t have to put on clothes. Nobody has to do anything, but given the high likelihood of losing his job if he doesn’t put on clothes, he pretty much has to. He’d have to leave the room and look down over the balcony at the tiny people talking below. He’d have to walk clear around the circle of the balcony. He’d have to ride the elevator down to the fifth floor. He’d have to walk back around the circle of the balcony to the other side where the vending machines are. Then he’d have to repeat the journey in reverse to get back to his sanctuary.
It would be a long time to be outside the room. It would be a long time to be vulnerable. With his luck there would probably be someone outside their room on the balcony, or someone riding the elevator, or someone at the vending machine. He’d have to make small talk that he doesn’t really want to make. At the very least he’d have to make eye contact and acknowledge another person’s existence. He doesn’t feel like faking it anymore today. He’s not neurotic about these things. It’s not fear or anxiety that makes him feel as he does. These feelings aren’t a constant in his life, but he feels them right now. This is his me time and he doesn’t want anyone to interrupt it. He needs it as much as he needs to breathe, or eat, or shit.
The grumble of his stomach makes a more convincing argument. He grabs a pair of shorts from the open suitcase on the floor and slips them on. He puts on a shirt, still damp with sweat from his run that afternoon. He walks over to the door. His hand is on the handle. He takes a deep breath, then another. The murmur outside is louder closer to the door. He begins to press down on the door handle, but stops. He remembers the jerky in the gift bag that everyone was given at the beginning of the conference. He remembers thinking how stupid it was to have jerky in a gift bag. It’s still stupid, but he’s glad that it’s there.
He walks back to the bed and finds the jerky. He takes back off his clothes. He doesn’t have to go out. He gets to stay in the womb, warm and safe. The jerky is salty and sweet with the flavor of teriyaki. Boxing comes on the television. He flips through the channels and stops at another shitty movie, this one about halfway through. He sits and chews on the jerky, watching, but not really engaged. He opens another package from the gift bag. This one contains some kind of meat stick made out of buffalo. It tastes terrible. He eats it anyways.
He’s rather good at what he does. He’s never been one to seek people out. It’s always been the other way around. When he’s in a big group of people he always feels a little anxious, a little out of place. He can overcome it when he needs to. He can start a conversation and even keep one going for a while. He’s good at jokes. Snappy one liners. His mind is quick. He can overcome what some would call shyness, he just doesn’t want to. He hates the clothes he has to wear at these meetings. They’re always uncomfortable and never feel like they fit right. Maybe that’s part of why he always feels so anxious. He hates the polite holding back of the wild thoughts that run through everybody’s heads.
A small white piece of quartz sits on the desk next to his laptop. One side is bright white. The other side is gray with dirt. He doesn’t actually know if it’s quartz, but when he had first looked at it that was the word that had popped into his head. It had just seemed right. He had taken a geology class in college, but he doesn’t remember much of it. Mostly just the lisping South African accent of the professor and laughing with his friends when they talked about the schists. The brown schists, the green schists, and the silver schists. They had gone on a field trip where the professor drove the van and talked constantly about his hope of seeing Mount Saint Helens erupt again. The professor wouldn’t run yellow lights. It had all seemed pretty funny at the time.
He holds the white rock in his hand. He had picked up the rock earlier that day between the meetings and dinner. He had changed out of his uncomfortable slacks and button down shirt and gone for a run. Streets gave way to a park, which gave way to a golf course, which gave way to tall hills criss crossed by mountain bike paths. It was a warm day. He had taken his shirt off and ran all the way to the top. He had stood and looked down one side at the city and down the other at the Black Hills. His knee hadn’t hurt too much. It would probably hurt tomorrow morning. It had been a good run. Elation, happiness without reason. Smiling at the feeling of just being alive. All just a rush of endorphins. A potent drug. Emotions are just chemicals in the brain, but that doesn’t mean they’re a bad thing. He had picked up the rock without really knowing why. It had been just sitting on the ground. A single piece of quartz all by itself on top of a hill of sandstone.
He takes the rock into the bathroom and washes the dirt off of it. The gray falls away revealing the white underneath. Some of the dark grit doesn’t fall away. He rubs at it with a washcloth for a bit, but to no avail. The dirt will just have to stay where it is for now. He walks back to the desk and sits back down. For a moment he thinks about her. It’s been awhile since he has thought of her. In the middle of a meeting today she had crossed his mind. It had been a boring meeting. His mind had wandered.
A word had been said, a memory had been triggered, and his eyes had started to water. All of the yearning for the lost joy, all the hurt from the slow and painful death of the relationship, all of the sacrifice, all of the mistakes. It had all come back. A punch to his chest. It has been a long time since the memories have evoked such a strong reaction. Usually they come and go without much fuss. A scar from the past, no longer an issue of the present. A ghost in the silence. A momentary sadness and then the mind moves on.
The second shitty movie comes to an end. He turns off the laptop and gets up. Teeth are brushed. Contacts are taken out. Lights are turned off. It’s time for bed. The story restarts in his head. The family man calls his wife and kids to tell them all goodnight. The man’s nightly ritual when he’s away on business trips. Does the family man have two kids or one? Are they boys or girls? He doesn’t know. That part shifts with every telling. The family man’s life is blurry and inconsistent. Part of him yearns for the life of the family man in his head. Another part doubts that he really wants the responsibility, that he really wants to give up his freedom for that kind of commitment. The imaginary man in his head is just the grass on the other side of the fence. Not necessarily better, but something different. A person whom it’s all right to feel jealous of because it’s just himself in an alternative reality.
It’s been a long time since he’s been in love. It’s been a long time since he has come across someone and thought to himself, this one, this is the one. He meets people, he attracts people, but nothing really ever seems to stick. With many he just can’t seem to get himself to really give a damn about them. It’s like being numb. Some of them he’s truly fond of. These are the ones where he can pretend for a little while that he has the feeling again,but in the end he has to stop pretending, and it comes time to move on. He has a good life. He has good friends. He has several nieces and nephews who universally think of him as their favorite uncle. He has so much more than he used to. So much more than he ever did when she was in his life. Perhaps it will all be enough.
He lays in the bed and watches a late night show on television. He considers masturbating but decides not to. He’s pretty tired. Maybe in the morning. The rush of endorphins is always a nice way to start the day. Soon he will be going home. One and a half more days of meetings. His thoughts wander to the woman he was with the night before he left. His mind’s eye brushes across her curves. His hands caress skin that isn’t there. A few too many drinks, some harmless flirting, then back to her place. She lived in a cramped apartment above an Ethiopian restaurant. The bedroom didn’t have a door and throughout her little dog would run in and jump on the bed before being shooed out. Maybe he would call her when he got back. He had said he would. Maybe not.
He turns off the television and pulls up the comforter. He closes his eyes. Tomorrow he will be social. Tomorrow he will hang out with people more. Spend more time making small talk and telling bad jokes. It will be enjoyable. Tomorrow they’re supposed to go to Mount Rushmore in the evening. That will be fun. He’s never been to Mount Rushmore before. He’s brought his camera so he can take the same picture that thousands of tourists have taken before him. He will look at the picture and feel like a photographer of great talent, then forget he ever took it. Soon he will be going home. He wants to be home right now. When he gets home he will want to be somewhere else. Not a different place, he likes where he lives, just a different reality. This reality isn’t so bad. He smiles and drifts off to sleep. It’s been a nice little vacation from the world. It’s been nice to be alone.