I wished we’d never come. I wished we’d never done it.
I wished, in any case, we’d never honeymooned afterwards.
Am I a cruel woman? No—there’s still hope. But still, I wanted to leave; I wanted to go back.
I wanted to protest: I am a ruin. I am something broken open, invaded, already dying. I have already lost all my strength, here at the outset. I cannot do this thing.
I said, “I want to leave; I want to go back.”
“Where to, though?” he wondered aloud and I could not answer him.
Where to? I asked myself—and I did not know.
At the ceremony, we had faced one another. Now, we no longer did so. Instead, we were standing side-by-side in a hotel lobby. The mirrors on the walls and on the stanchions multiplied the waxy leaves of potted tropicals: vines and slender trunks, shrubbery and long trailers. The mirror-tiled ceiling was full of greenery too: the gleaming green of the green-tiled floor.
I was uncomfortable and stiff in white taffeta, he in black silk. If I were to move, the taffeta would whisper.
I did not move.
The lobby’s steady, dim light was reflected in the sleek, polished brass of the elevator’s call-button backplate and in the lateral curvature and rising slopes of polished oak banisters along the staircase that lead to the mezzanine.
Signal for all cars, the backplate read—which was odd since there was, regrettably, only the one car—and also UP and DOWN. A few moments earlier, the extended forefinger of my right hand had been reflected there too, as I pressed the uppermost of the two translucent, melamine buttons.
It was illuminated now.
I pressed the button. I summoned the ancient elevator. Next, one imagines, comes our embarkation, our entry into the cabin, our ascent. Soon we would find ourselves at the threshold of a lavishly appointed room. A wide bed, still dressed in its elegant white coverlet, awaited us. There, finally, we were to descend—as all our guests would have divined, as the concierge and porter anticipated now—into the secret basement of our bodies.
I feared that some unforeseen infraction—a stray lady-whisker, for example, or some shocking sound apropos of nothing, or some rough scent of shells and rust and green scallions sweating in an iron pan, would do me in—would do us in.
The collapsible steel gate was closed. Sounds of violin and cello murmured in the lofty distance and sank down the elevator’s dark shaft like a soft, grey mist. I was reminded, again, of the reception.
When the elevator arrived, I knew that, elsewhere, the party would have ended. The gate would scissor open, the dim interior would strike me as drowsy, the violinist would smile subtly, cat-like, and repeat, “Not yet.”
The operator would shut the gate and we would hear, once again, the creak of cables, pulling, the distant, rhythmic whir of motor and gears and the diminishing density of the music as the elevator rose, unseen, overhead.
He would look at me once more, the pupils of his eyes pitch-blue, even purple, with fear. But his frown would be as subtly curved and soft as the shaft and vanes of a mauve feather. I would turn to the smartly-uniformed porter. He would turn to the handsome concierge, whose perfectly coiffed head would be turned, already, in our direction. But the gaze that would drift towards us, through the deep air of the vast lobby, would be an indifferent one. Aimlessly, it would pass over to where I was standing, near him, my groom, the two of us still standing, like the staff, also uniformed—albeit in black silk and white taffeta—for this consummate occasion.
There was a sound that gave a sudden shock, trembled in the air, and was gone: the ringing of the bell that indicated the arrival of the elevator. It was as I had feared. The whole quartet remained. None of them had disembarked. My husband began to cry, and I did not know if it was the beauty of the music—which I concede—or his fear that brought him to tears.
If the musicians had been other than these four—if they had been, for example, not musicians with soft, feminine features, but instead coarse men, fat with beer; if their drunken, opaque eyes had lingered too long upon me, trying to penetrate taffeta and silk underthings, to get a look at my secret body—then I might have rushed at them, taken their clothing in my hands, pulled them out, pushed them across the lobby, then returned to my husband, breathless, lifted him up and gone into the cabin, nodding our intention to go up now to the elevator operator. I would have watched them—if they had been other than these four—panting, cowering, idiotic, until the gate was shut and I felt the accelerating uplift in my stomach and the tingle of anticipation and a readiness to summit in my groin.
The brass key that the concierge had given me glittered as if it had been newly cut and polished that afternoon. The concierge had held it out to me, taking the large wooden tag between his right thumb and forefinger, the key itself dangling. He drew my attention to the numerals that were etched into its surface and said, simply, “Top floor.”
Out beyond the glass doors that mark the frontier between warm lobby and cool night, the conveyance that had brought us from the aerodrome was long gone. The waning of its muffled growl left me with a sense of finality, of some ultimate arrival and irreversible entrance. We climbed out of the automobile and in the brief span of time required for my husband and I to cross the field of green tiles, I enjoyed a short spell of sublime repose. But then we reached the elevator and I pressed the UP button and the gate opened, and we realized, with a start, that the string quartet that had attended us and our guests with music at the reception had somehow followed us here and was in full possession of the elevator’s cabin. I watched and listened, unable to speak, as they finished with Hayden and began some Vivaldi.
As the low growl of that now distant engine faded away, I watched as four white-haired bows moved up, down, this way and that, without strain or effort, floating in air that seemed to support the four bowing-arms, as if the air were water and everything else were swimming gracefully through it: the black-sleeved arms and the unadorned hands and the bows and the violin, the viola and the cello and the enormous upright bass (larger than any man). And the air was too full of music and too full of slender-waisted musicians and the rich, warm smell of ancient wood for me to think clearly. And we had not entered and the operator closed the gate. Its dozens of pivots must have been well-oiled, for it closed silently and the music played on, unimpeded.
There had been an initial loss-of-bearings and my husband had laughed and said, “How lovely”—because he believed that our friends had arranged this to surprise and please us, not knowing how small the elevator was, not knowing that we would never be able to enter it as long as the quartet was inside. The concierge smiled, thinking along the same lines, perhaps.
But when the elevator had risen and then returned a second time, when I, smiling like an old friend, attempted to enter the amber-lighted space anyway, when the violinist had said, “Not yet,” and—leaving his three companions to play on without him—actually stood and barred the entrance, I saw that something was wrong. I turned to the porter, who shrugged, and to the concierge, who shrugged, too, with even greater indifference than the porter.
The elevator rose and fell, and I lost count of its cycling, its highs and lows. The rhythm of its machinery blended with the sometimes distant, sometimes proximate music and I thought of the stairs and the great burden that my husband would be if I were obliged to carry him up them. He stood silently beside me, his hands clasped, lifted to his sternum, as though he were reenacting— albeit without my now tossed-off bouquet—my own earlier posture before the altar. Earlier, yes, I had approached him, pure and almost weightless, my hands, now stark white, then garden-like, filled with heady, bright freesia and other fragrant blooms. And he had come down to meet me, dizzied through and deeply, no doubt, as my father relinquished me, happily, and we had turned to face the minister. And I had been dizzy, too, gazing down that long corridor of flagstones and those two high walls of elegantly dressed bodies—walls that did not succeed in obscuring the many opulently rosy hearts there that day, all shamelessly engorged and happy for me and him. And then our guests seemed to tower over us, stretched up to the rafters, so that they formed the bluffs of a long gorge whose escarpments were lined with eyes, watchinghimandme,allstarrywithineffablesentimentatthesightofsobeautiful,soperfectaunion.
Their admiration made me faint-hearted. They did not know.
The guests had sustained this impressed air throughout the ceremony, all grounded in blithe imaginings, in musings that were incommensurable with mine, forever alienated from me. And I had wanted to escape. I had only narrowly survived the reception without collapsing into desperate, frightened tears and dreaded the inevitable and well-meant hilarity of our friends. But there had been no surprises in our transition from my father’s house to the aerodrome, or onto the airship, or from the terminus to the hotel—not until we arrived, finally, and were making the final approach, unhindered, to the clean-sheeted bed.
Earlier, in the yellow light of that afternoon, a young woman was making up the bed in the large suite—the one reserved for consummations and perversions. She surmised that, in all probability, tonight’s event would never come to pass, or rather, that what would take place would be a charade—because the so-called consummation of the thing would have preceded the resolution and the promises. She imagined that this was so not only tonight, in particular, but universally, in every instance, in every such suite, in every land. She had stopped before the dressing table, before a mirror whose bright silver would reflect, later on, the pale face of a bride, too ancient and worn for love. The hotel maid imagined that it was she, the woman in question, and that the face at which she was looking was not hers, but the face of a woman twice her age—forty years old, then. As though prophesying, she murmured, “somewhere, the last promise has been spoken.” She paused and then—“It has been broken,” she resumed, “and infidelity reigns throughout the earth.”
Speaking thus, she rent her clothing and stood there, engulfed with shame at the sight of her body, at once unblemished and, in her dark imaginings, broken in the deformity of age.
It was apparent to me that the presence of these musicians was not a token of some friend’s good-humour. That this was not so, I saw—but as for what was so, that I did not see. My husband began to weep again, utterly confounded. For a moment, once more, I hoped he was only touched by the music, but then he began to wail.
In the early morning, in the cold, blue light that signals the sun’s immanent appearance, the elevator, having descended again, was still impenetrable. The concierge was sitting behind his long and immaculate counter, sleeping, his still perfectly coiffed head resting against a hand with curled fingers and tidy nails.
In the early morning, in the warm orange and blue-green of the sun’s first appearance beyond the steaming river there and the willows that line its banks, I remembered the stairs again. First, I remembered the first of my birthdays that we celebrated together. It was my thirty-sixth birthday—just over four years prior to this, the morning after our wedding night. We were going to see a film and to eat together—just that simple, that beginning. I recalled the foyer of my palatial family home. I recalled the staircase that ascended, up to the first landing, where I had stood, waiting for him. On that occasion, I had descended to meet him. Now, I led him to the door that opened into the chill of the echoing stairwell. I took his arm and I pulled him away from the elevator. In his confusion, he stopped crying.
Then I lifted him up. I took him in my arms and crossed the threshold and entered that dim, high space.
Secretly unhappy, I began the everlasting climb.
—Cameron Thomson is a moral philosopher, singer-songwriter, and storyteller. When he’s not writing or making music, he may be found on the beach, searching for beach-glass and other treasure, or in the woods, digging for historical glass in former dumpsites. His work has been published in Longshot Island and Salt Hill. He is currently working on a novel.