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The Plaza Hotel
by Charlotte Gill

THE LOBBY IS PLUSH, creepy and vacant. "Because we just reopened last week," Karen, the front-desk attendant reassures us.
     "We're new here," I say. And new, Matt and I, with each other.
     Brass fixtures, replicas, claret-coloured runners tacked down onto virgin hardwood. Ceiling fans jiggle, cut up the air. What she means is, it's a building with history. A former downtown rooming house that can't shed its ghosts.
     "It's great," I say, "just not what we expected." What were we hoping for? A haunt full of bare bulbs and bad smells, ruinous habits and regret? We've stayed in such places, witnessed paintings of bullfights, drapes the colour of cheese balls. We'd have stayed no matter what we encountered. We're as in love with disappointment as we are with bottom-end prices.
     But now there's no reason to suffer. Everything's been renovated. Very renovated, and it's beginning to feel like a high-ticket night.
     Karen's blazer matches the carpets. We're dusted with road filth. I want to catch her looking twice at his dirty fingernails, the oily smears down the thighs of his jeans. Or at my luggage, a grocery bag of toiletries dumped from the medicine chest in my apartment. She seems not to notice, slides us the keys to several rooms so we can inspect. "Every room is different," she says.

MATT ASKS IN cavalier tones if we can prowl around the honeymoon suite. I blush, creep back to the old black-and-whites on the lobby walls. Canada's Mother of the Year dines with John Diefenbaker. A couple, circa 1940, stand together in front of a bread truck shaped like a big white loaf. The woman's expression is pinched. The man wears a sliding grin as if, beyond the camera's reach, he nips at her ass with his fingers.

THE OLD OTIS has a solid wooden door that must weigh more than a piano. The machinery rumbles and clatters up to the fifth floor, where the honeymoon suite is a letdown, a fiasco of ruffle and plaid. The bed, a mammoth cast-iron thing canopied with white netting. There is a draft of conditioned air, mingling smells of fabric sizing, curing paint. We escape into the bathroom, where we've been promised there's a claw-footer big enough for Matt, who's got a long stretch for a body. Who's a putterer with stone and wood, the last in an uncanny series of my carpenter-type companions. I know he doesn't wear underwear or own bed sheets. I'm pretending to think I could like him that way.
     We bumble into something of a kiss while he gropes for the light switch. "Don't turn it on," I say. What if there's no tub at all? Just a shower curtain in more screeching plaid.
     The room's high, narrow windows look out onto the main street, a corner of parking lot. Matt tries to open one, finds it painted shut, resigns himself to leaning on the sill. "Look," he points down into the darkness, "there's someone breaking into your car." I see for myself. In the parking lot, a man with curly hair and a leather vest slivers something into the lock on my old car.
     For some reason I fling the room key at Matt's feet before racing out, as if I'm not quite sure I'll make it back. I hear myself pound down tunnels of deserted corridor, then dash out the first exit I can find, an old door revamped with a push bar and safety glass. Out into hot summer wind, down four flights of fire escape, heart thumping with the adrenaline, I decide I'm poorly equipped for the occasion, for hypothetical outcomes, for ugly possibilities.
     But I'm no dame in a movie, just a girl in a life. Life, where situations good and bad end as quickly and inexplicably as they begin. I land on the asphalt, find myself stymied by a locked, barbed-wired gate. The man fiddling with my car door has disappeared, and I'm left in an orange glow of streetlight.
     I hear Matt's feet on the metal steps above me. We climb back to the fifth floor only to discover the door we've passed through has locked behind us, and suddenly sleep seems terrifically far away.
     Out here, the hotel is a century of mismatched additions, a puzzle of rooftops and ladders. The older ones slapped with layers of tar paper, the newer ones, lawns of stone chips. Newer still, the Cold Beer and Wine's buzzing neon. We roam in search of openings.
     Eventually we come across the chambermaids' smoking parlour: a sunbrella, a couple of plastic chairs tipped against a table. A door, of course, without a handle. I dig my nails under the steel security plate with a secret desperation. I feel Matt's eyes on my back. And then, like a triumph, a sliver of light presents itself.

DOWN IN THE LOBBY we relate our adventure to Karen, now suspicious, her chatty effervescence gone flat. She comes out with the price like it's the biting end of a whip. "What the hell," we agree. Carpe diem. We're travel mates, nothing more than temporary.
     Karen doles out registration forms. Of no fixed address, I push them at Matt. I watch him, a gypsy as well, jot down his sister's address in Alberta. He winks my way and merges our
names-his first, my first, then his last-into something marital and at the same time irreverent.
     "Ha," I say.
     Karen peers at us from under crunched eyebrows. We halve the bill, scribble two signatures onto two Visa slips. We've also driven our own vehicles here, for convenience, for separate getaways if need be.

WE PICK A MODEST room done in a low-key shade of green. The same colour my mother once painted my bedroom because tests had shown it soothed, promoted feelings of security. I think of sun-bleached garden hose or a twenty that's been put through the wash.
    We shower, muddy up plush white towels we're sure must go fifty bucks a pop. I glide by the bathroom and, from the corner of my eye, catch Matt shaving at the mirror. My father never shaved, always wore a beard, so I now loiter in the door frame. Matt's razor dips over jaw and cheekbones. Foam and stubble disappear down the drain. I watch, though not for too long.
    Just an hour ago we were vagabonds at the entrance of the Plaza Hotel, blinking at the newness, all those light bulbs inside. Walls so starkly white we could almost smell paint through the glass. Was there a revolving door? A whirl of shining brass, a rain of light from the chandeliers? I want to say yes, but in truth there almost certainly wasn't.


Charlotte Gill digs the ground.


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