by Harrison Bae Wein
Oscar had been wandering unfettered through the hotel hallways for what seemed like forever when, with a mixture of fear and relief, he heard the bellhop say, “Come here, child.” He stopped in his tracks, spun around, and approached the man, who towered over him in a worn blue blazer with dulled brass buttons and a hat encircled by a yellow cord, which Oscar was tempted to tug to see if it would cause the hat to fall apart.
“Do your parents know where you are?” the bellhop asked in an affected voice, calculated to make it clear that he was condescending to speak in English. He forced a smile, his thin, neatly trimmed mustache curving like a hairy caterpillar above his lips.
“Do you know where you are?”
Gazing down at the thick red carpet, Oscar slowly shook his head from side to side.
“Are you even staying in this hotel?”
He nodded in a similarly slow manner.
“What is your room number?”
“Four zero five.”
“Four zero…fourth floor,” the bellhop thought aloud. “Are you the boy with the mother…,” he suddenly paused, searching for the appropriate words.
Oscar nodded again.
“Would you like me to show you to your room?” After Oscar shook his head, the bellhop explained, “You are on the seventh floor now. You must go down to the fourth floor, and then follow the signs on the walls—they are near all the elevators—until you find your room. Four-o-five is between four hundred and four nineteen, so look for those numbers. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Oscar said quickly, eager to get away. The man smelled musty, like the hotel but even stronger; Oscar didn’t like being so close to him.
The bellhop gave a half-satisfied grunt to indicate that he was satisfied he had done his duty and then hurried away to leave Oscar to himself. Watching him round a corner, Oscar half wished the bellhop had insisted he come along with him, as then he wouldn’t have to think about where to go next.
Wanting to avoid another encounter, Oscar turned and walked the other way. He was coming to think he could roam these corridors forever, with their countless white doors in unending beige walls, which could be transformed, he discovered, into beaches of sand if you squinted your eyes in just the right way. He eventually reached an atrium with a glass elevator in the middle and hallways radiating from it like spokes on a bicycle wheel. He decided to walk toward an area with small tables that he hadn’t explored before.
As he approached, a young woman waving her arms caught his eye. She was looking right at him and, when they made eye contact, waved him impatiently toward her.
“Come, sit,” she said as he approached cautiously. She had shiny pink lipstick and straight black hair that turned blonde at the bottom.
“I don’t know you.”
“Very funny. Have a seat.”
Her breezy familiarity was enough to dispel his reluctance; there were many other people around, so there seemed to be little danger in joining her.
“Why haven’t I heard from you?”
Oscar looked around, as if there might be someone nearby to tell him what was going on.
“You know, I’m not amused by your attitude. You treat people as if they have no emotions. You may not feel anything, but other people do.”
She waited for him to respond, her forehead creased behind a thin veil of hair. He wanted to say something to reassure her, but his mind was empty of words.
“I wasn’t sure we were ever going to see each other again,” she continued, “but I’m glad I’ve run into you. While we may have no future together, at least I can tell you to your face what a shit you are.”
She paused, expecting him to answer. “I’m sorry,” he ventured, hoping this magical phrase would make her happy.
“Is that all you have to say? Nothing about why you ghosted me? I actually thought we had something meaningful. Didn’t you, at least for a little while?”
“I don’t know who you are,” he said flatly.
Her face suddenly relaxed, and she leaned back, as if contemplating something new. “I guess I really don’t know you very well, either. Maybe I just fooled myself into thinking that our time together meant more than it did. It’s a problem I have, making the mistake of caring about people.”
He shrugged. “Can I have some of your orange juice?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
She watched as he reached for her glass and, holding it with both hands, took a sip.
“You really do act like a child. But I’m done trying to force these things. Am I ever going to hear from you again?”
“I don’t think so,” he said, putting the glass back down on the table. “Can I go now?”
“Whatever,” she answered, pulling a datebook from her purse and beginning to leaf through the pages as if he weren’t there. She still had some pancakes smeared with strawberry jam on her plate, which he would have liked to ask for, but he decided to take the opportunity to leave. He pushed his chair back to stand and walked past her, accidentally bumping his hip on her chair, but even then she didn’t acknowledge him.
Walking back to the elevator hub, Oscar decided to go down to the ground floor to find the pool area. He was tired of walking and wanted to just settle down and sit somewhere—the ground floor was also easier to navigate than these upper floors, with their endless hallways.
The rectangular pool was outdoors, nestled between the wings of the hotel. Once downstairs, Oscar searched around until he spotted a sign guiding him in the right direction. When he arrived there, he found many people on the patio but was able to claim a lounge chair in a corner to lie down on. He closed his eyes in imitation of the older sunbathers and, feeling the warmth of the sun on his eyelids, soon began to doze off.
He was woken by the voice of a young boy nearby saying, “Dad, I’m tired of swimming.”
Oscar tried to slip back into sleep, but a hand shaking his shoulder forced him to open his eyes. “I said I don’t want to swim anymore,” said the boy hovering over him.
“Then don’t swim,” Oscar answered curtly.
“Okay,” the boy said, and sat on the edge of the chair beside him. He was dripping wet, and the water slid along the vinyl slats of the chair and began to seep into Oscar’s shirt.
“I’m getting all wet.”
“Sorry,” the boy apologized, and shifted closer to the edge.
“Why don’t you sit over there?” Oscar suggested, pointing to the next chair, and the young boy reluctantly switched, sitting down to face him.
“Are you really going away?” the boy suddenly asked.
Oscar shrugged, unsure how to answer.
“Mom said this might be the last time we see you.”
Oscar scanned for the boy’s mother, but no one was paying them any attention. “We might see each other again,” was all he could think to answer.
“Mom’s really mad at you. She said she hopes she never sees you again. But I wish you could live with us.”
Oscar thought you can’t always get what you want, but he figured it better not to say so.
The young boy was still staring at him and, although his face was still wet from the pool, it was clear his eyes were welling with tears. “I guess I’ll just go in the water again,” he said, disappointed, and stood up.
The boy nodded dejectedly and ambled toward the pool.
Now fully awake, Oscar felt awkward remaining there. He stood up in frustration and went back inside, resolved to try to find their room again and maybe lie in bed watching TV and keeping his mother company.
The elevator going up was crowded, and he got off with a group of other people. After waiting for them to clear away from the elevator bank, he started down the long, jagged hallway. It was identical to the others he’d been walking—the thick red carpet, the beige wallpaper, the pairs of white doors spaced along each side, warmly lit by glowing goblets on gold-colored bases—but he knew his way to their room from the pool elevators.
Once he turned the corner, he approached the second door on the right to find it open a crack and pushed his way inside without knocking. Upon seeing him, an elderly man sitting in a wheelchair by the window called, “Here, come in.”
Oscar stepped toward him cautiously, uncertain what to do. He couldn’t see the man very well with the light coming from behind him, but he seemed thin and frail, slumped against the far side of his chair. “So, the prodigal son finally returns,” he declared. “I suppose I should be honored.”
Oscar drew nearer without answering.
“What brings you back here?”
“I don’t know.”
“You can sit on the bed if you’d like.”
“No, thank you.”
Close now, Oscar studied the man’s face. His wrinkled, loose skin had large brown spots, scattered barren islands in a sea of pale skin. A string of mucus from his nose hung almost to his mouth. Although the man clutched a handkerchief in his lap, he didn’t seem to notice his need for it.
“I don’t know where Sylvia went, and I haven’t eaten yet,” he said, pointing a trembling hand to the tray on the rolling table beside his wheelchair. “If you want to make yourself useful, you could give me a hand.”
“Okay,” Oscar said, seeing no choice.
“It’s not hard. Just cut up the food and get it into my mouth.”
Oscar lifted the plastic plate cover to reveal a slice of turkey covered with congealed brown gravy, a lump of loose mashed potatoes, and some peas and carrots. As he nervously began to cut the turkey into small pieces, the man, observing him carefully, began to shake his head, saying, “Your mother always did spoil you. You learned what you had to, but never did a stitch more. I tried to set you straight, but clearly I failed.” At that, he turned to the window to look at some gray clouds drifting past, causing the drop from his nose to fall into his lap.
Relieved to no longer be watched, Oscar finished cutting up the turkey and then asked, “What do I do now?”
“What do you think? Push the table closer and start feeding me.”
Oscar did as he was told, loading a bit of all three foods on the fork and putting it into the man’s mouth. The man breathed heavily as he chewed, the process a labor.
“I do feel bad about what happened to your mother,” he said after swallowing. “I do. But I wish you’d stop pretending you were the only one that lost her.”
Oscar gave the man another forkful of food and watched as he opened and closed his mouth laboriously until finally swallowing. “It may be convenient to blame one misfortune, or one person, for everything bad that happens in your life—I understand that temptation—but it’s you who makes the choice to linger in the past and not move on. It’s you who allows that one event to define you.”
After Oscar put another forkful in the man’s mouth, he felt a hand on his shoulder from behind. Looking up, he saw a heavyset woman wearing a white apron. “I can finish feeding him,” she said in a kindly voice.
Oscar nodded and turned back to the man. “I’d better go.”
“I see. You’ve done your duty now, visited your father one last time before he dies, so now you can live without a guilty conscience.”
Oscar could find no language to use, not even a rote apology; it was as if the words had fallen away from him as he’d walked through the hallways of the hotel.
“Okay,” Oscar said, backing away, “bye, then.”
“Yes, have a nice life. I would say it was good to see you, but I can’t bring myself to lie.”
As he closed the door behind him, Oscar looked at the plaque outside the room to find that he was on the wrong floor entirely—in his eagerness to get back to the room, he realized, he must have forgotten to check the numbers. Frustrated with himself, he stomped back to the elevator bank.
This time, he double-checked when he got off to make sure he was on the correct floor. Tired and eager to get back to his room, he made sure he was at room 405 before knocking on the door.
After a slight delay, his father opened it a crack and, seeing him, pulled it wide open for him. Oscar entered to find his mother asleep on her back on the near bed, her breathing labored, the soapy white skin of her face shiny with sweat. A thin sheet covered her slight figure, but the blankets were pushed down to her ankles.
“I still recommend that you bring her to a hospital,” the doctor suggested gently in slow, careful English. An older man in a rumpled brown suit sat by the head of the bed, leaning forward in the chair from the desk and examining Oscar’s mother with concern.
“I’m not letting her go into one of these backward hospitals you have here,” Oscar’s father said, pacing. “I’ve heard they’re deathtraps. We’ll move her back home and get her real help as soon as she can travel again.”
“I must question your decision, sir. She is in need of greater medical care than I can provide myself.”
“She seems to be getting better to me. Doesn’t she look better to you?”
“She does appear to be slightly improved at the moment, but the human body is a frail vessel. She may be fighting now and seem to us as if she’s getting better but then plunge very quickly without warning.”
“She’s young and healthy. She’s going to be fine. We just have to give it time.”
“Youth is not always enough to fight a systemic infection.”
Oscar backed away quietly as they continued to argue. The room smelled sour and musty, and he wanted to be somewhere else, somewhere where his mother wasn’t sick and his father wasn’t arguing with a doctor. He wished he could say yes to the doctor himself to allow his mother to be taken to a hospital, but his father would never allow it.
Slipping back into the corridor, he softly closed the door behind him. He peered down the long passageway in one direction and then the other, wondering where each might lead. Despite the seemingly endless, inexhaustible possibilities, he was overcome by the tired sense that, whichever way he chose, he would only wind up in all the same places. It felt as if he would be wandering these labyrinthine corridors for the rest of his life.
Harrison Bae Wein’s fiction and poetry has appeared in several literary journals, most recently in ONE ART and Clio’s Psyche, and forthcoming in riverSedge. Harrison has won several awards as a health and science writer, and his work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and many other outlets. He founded and now edits two health publications at the National Institutes of Health. You can find him online at http://harrisonwein.com.