The Durham Hotel
Like her mother, Eloise was once concerned with being elegant. Her ankles and wrists were slim, and she wore pedal pushers and tennis bracelets to highlight this fact. Her trim midsection was a pleasing palette for thin belts and tucked blouses. She cultivated a department-store air of ease. She wore Chanel, smiled just right, only often enough.
If Eloise was tired, she didn’t know it. She sailed through college like a skiff on the Seine. She did a semester in Vienna, joined a sorority, kept long cigarettes in a golden snap-shut case in her purse, but only smoked them socially.
When college ended, she married the kind of man she was meant to marry. Tall and handsome and refined, with a degree that translated to a Colonial Revival in Trinity Park. The wedding was wonderful, white. The honeymoon traditional, European. It wasn’t until they’d moved and settled in that things started to feel strange. That is to say, it wasn’t until married life began that Eloise felt for the first time in her life that something about her was unsettled. That perhaps something inside her had been unsettled all along but she’d been too preoccupied with convention to notice.
Sometimes things rose up in her as she was cooking dinner, rose up in her like hiccups, unwelcome and embarrassing, snatches of things she recalled from college, things that had caused her to feel things it’s possible she hadn’t wanted to feel. Lines from poems, images from paintings. She’d be patiently turning chicken thighs in a skillet when a line would assert itself over and over in her mind, some earworm she could not rid herself of: “All I could see from where I stood,” it might say, “Was three long mountains and a wood.” She would speak the lines out loud without meaning to, hum their rhythm. Then there were more lines, entire poems. She burned the rice and buttered the bread without toasting it. Her husband complained. “And to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow,” she murmured to herself as she watched him walk down the sidewalk each morning with his briefcase, “There's this little street and this little house.”
Three months and fourteen days after the wedding, Eloise realized she was pregnant. At first, she was relieved. This, she thought, must be the source of the strangeness. Just gas and upset from the intestinal tract. Hormones can do strange things, her mother had warned her, upset the gut, infect the brain. “You’ll know when you’re with child,” she’d told Eloise. But then Eloise found that she couldn’t tell her husband. Each time she tried, some other thought bloomed in her mind, an essay she’d written on Shakespeare, a walk she’d taken in the woods as a child, some scandalous line from a Whitman poem. She would pass gas on purpose, something she’d discovered she could do in recent weeks, and flee from the table as if embarrassed. But she wasn’t embarrassed, she was flushed with desire. She wanted things she could not name. Her husband avoided her.
It wasn’t hard to call a friend and relate her dilemma. It was even easier to arrange a meeting place, in a popular hotel downtown where women often met for lunch, mingling with the businessmen and professionals. They ordered coffee and a basket of breakfast breads, which neither of them touched. “Oh, Eloise,” her college friend breathed, grasping Eloise’s hand in her own. But when she slid the address across the table, written out in perfect schoolgirl’s cursive on a sheet of blank paper, her tone turned. “If they find out,” she said, looking at the address and not at Eloise, “Don’t give out this address and don’t say my name.”
“You have to promise,” the friend said, looking at Eloise now, her eyebrows, darker than Eloise remembered them, drawn into a v on her forehead.
The hotel had a rooftop bar. As she watched her college friend sashay to the door, skirts swishing, she considered taking the elevator up and throwing herself off the edge. And though the thought left her almost as soon as it entered, she was left in its wake as it pulled away from her, treading in the turbulence it left behind.
That was not an elegant thought, Eloise told herself. She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again. The smell of a boiled egg one table over threatened to overwhelm her and she stood abruptly, spilling her water.
That night, she slept in fits and starts. She dreamt of a poet wearing white in a graveyard filled with birds that wouldn’t stop speaking to her in the lines of poems. “I’m nobody, who are you?” one crowed. Another, a woodpecker, taunted her, “I celebrate myself,” it said, pounding at the wood, and then her temples, until she awoke in the dark morning, her husband asleep beside her.
Later, after scrambled eggs and kissed cheeks and a bus ride downtown, Eloise made her way to the address, a doorway set halfway down a dark alley between two buildings she never remembered seeing before, though she’d lived in the city most of her life. She stood on the street at the mouth of the alley longer than she meant to, staring into the rectangle of light at its other end where the darkness opened up to another city street, parallel to the one on which she was standing. Finally, a bus stopped in the street behind her, its breaks wheezing. Eloise took a deep breath and ducked into the shadows.