The environmental conference had been cancelled due to bad weather, but two guests had arrived nonetheless. On Saturday morning they dine at opposite ends of a bright dining room, attended by separate waiters. Nina has ordered the Continental breakfast and divides her attention between three things: The snow covered mountains visible through the plate glass window, her slightly burnt triangles of wheat toast, and the guest across the room, a tall man with unfortunately thinning hair. He acknowledges her presence by nervously grinning into a thick napkin and then laying it on his right knee. She smiles briefly back at him and quickly tucks a strand of black hair behind her ear. The older waiter brings her more coffee and pours it before she can refuse.
“They say one to three feet by Tuesday,” the waiter says. Then he bends toward her and she instinctively recoils as he gets closer. He asks her in a whisper if she’s met the other guest.
“I haven’t,” she says. “But I’m sure I will.”
“Sorry,” the waiter says. “I’m sure it’s none of my business.”
The waiter withdraws, leaving both guests alone in the large room. She’s lost her appetite, so she watches him eat. He seems like a joyless type, with long fingers and thick corduroy pants she could imagine him digging from some closet the night before the flight. As he eats, he stares blankly at a Blackberry that sits at the edge of the table, occasionally touching a button, as if to reveal some bland news item or an email he could care less about.
She touches the lukewarm rim of her coffee cup and reaches into her purse for her cellphone, then changes her mind. There will be new texts from a man she had dated for a few weeks; now he won’t leave her alone even though she refuses to respond. Her silence seems to make him more manic every day. The questions he had asked at first were innocent enough: Enjoyed the date, would love to see you again. Are you free Friday night? Would you like to grab a drink on Sunday? As the days passed, his queries had gotten more specific and eerie: What don’t you like about me? Do you think I’m boring? Don’t you think I deserve another chance? And then finally they ceased to become questions at all, just disconnected statements: I’m great in bed. I hate small talk. I can knock a man out without throwing a punch.
Instead of reaching for her cell phone, she turns toward the waiter, but he is nowhere to be seen.
“It’s snowing,” a voice says behind the dining room screen. Both guests look up attentively, chins raised as if a movie were about to begin, watching even more silent bits of snow fall into the gray rock garden.
Back in her suite, a large room with a king-sized bed and a fake plant near the window, she studies the Guest Services binder as she lies on top of the olive bedspread. The magnification of her loneliness has made her feel oddly sexy. She had turned the heat up high, taken a long bath, and then changed into black panties and a bra. She had left the blinds open, not particularly caring who saw her. The other units all appeared to be empty.
The snow had stopped a few hours earlier, and now a deep blueness infuses the landscape, making the light inside her room feel more important. In her purse, across the room, her cell phone blips again. It would be the man she had dated, texting another fact about his personality. After she had stepped out of the bath, mist evaporating around her bare shoulders, she had had deleted ten of his texts without looking. The eleventh made her pause. He had promised her he would find her, wherever she was. Then, as if to apologize for his sinister tone, he had added, “and take you to dinner again so you can get to know the real me!!!!”
She turns her head toward the window and slips one finger inside the crotch of her underwear. The usual fantasies seem useless here, like a room card from another hotel, unable to unlock anything. She’s so tired it feels as if a soft mask of extra flesh is pressing on her face. On the first flight here she had been kept awake by an endless conversation in the row behind her. A young couple had been sorting through the photographs on their iPhones, cooing over the ones they loved best. Letting the thin fabric of her underwear snap back, she walks across the room and takes the phone out of her purse and deletes more desperate texts. He’s sending pictures of his penis now, like some small flaccid friend who can’t really vouch for anything. She imagines a green line of radar thrown clockwise across the United States, revealing millions of private parts moving towards and away from each other, hers included, one cold forefinger still touching her inner thigh.
In leather boots, he shoots baskets in the well lit gym next to the resort’s health center. It’s nearly eight o’clock and he senses that the attendant sitting in the office nearby wishes he’d just go back to his room. Since arriving two days ago, he has the constant sensation that people just want him to finish whatever he’s doing: sleep for the maid, breakfast for the waiter, his tour of the small ski town so that the shuttle driver could drive him back to the resort. He was so anxious about their anxiety about his pleasure that he skipped dinner altogether. That’s why he’s here now, stooped over a basketball and picking it up again. He was always terrible at this sport, but now, with no one watching him, he runs awkwardly to the basket, heels echoing like pistol shots against the high walls, and executes a perfect layup. In his thick corduroys, he’s sweating now, but he doesn’t care. He picks up the ball, leans back, and this time misses the hoop entirely.
He’s chasing down the ball when he sees the other guest standing outside the plate glass window, watching him. She opens her mouth and says something, and he shakes his head to let her know he can’t understand, the basketball pinned between his hip and hand. On his way to the health center, he had seen her eating alone again inside the dining room. Part of him felt he should introduce himself, as the only other arrived guest of the environmental conference, and part of him dreaded any communication at this point, just as he was beginning to learn how to become invisible. The concierge knew he needed a shuttle to the airport tomorrow, and then he’d be gone. The small costs he had incurred would be reimbursed.
Not sure how to talk to a stranger through a plate glass window, he turns away with a pained smile and clops toward the basket again, throwing up another terrible shot that hits the corner of the translucent backboard and hits him on the shoulder. He forces himself to look outside again, but she’s already walking away, her white coat painted with quick strips of yellow as she passes the lamps sunk into the pavement.
Picking up the ball again, he doesn’t even have the energy to try another shot. He rolls it to the cart loaded with basketballs and presses the metal band of the water fountain, closing his eyes as he waits for its small stream. He walks toward the door of the gym, briefly inspects a vending machine filled with Power Bars, and then passes the front desk, nodding at the male attendant with the crew cut. A girl with stringy hair and wearing a puffy black parka sits on the couch, flipping through a copy of a fitness magazine.
“Hey guest,” she says.
“Don’t start,” the attendant says.
“He’s probably as bored as we are,” she says, standing up. She beats him to the door, opens it and stands against it.
“Thank you,” he says.
“Leave him alone,” the attendant says.
He has to brush by the puffy rectangles of her jacket as he steps outside. He can smell the strawberry Chapstick on her lips.
“Can you lend me a ten?” she says, letting the door close behind her so that they attendant’s next protest is muffled.
He’s aroused by her request for money, and the fact she’s let the door close behind her, in spite of her boyfriend now trying to get her attention from the cramped office.
He reaches behind his parka with one hand and then the other, as if he were frisking himself, looking for his wallet. It drops to the wet pavement, all the credit cards and identification slithering toward her cheap black boots. Supermarket receipts instantly soak up the water and turn black. He tries to peel one of the ground and looks up at her face.
“I was kidding,” she says.
In her suitcase, there’s a bottle of Smirnoff, but she can’t drink it without ice. In the guest services book, she finds the page that identifies the closest ice machine, located in Mueller Hall. She pull on her coats and steps into her boots, walking into the dry cold. High up on the slopes of a mountain she’ll never ski, as a snowcat grooms a slope, but at such a great distance it seems to barely move centimeters. She watches it for a moment, her breath hanging in the air, hands shoved deep in her pockets.
The glass door of Mueller Hall is surprisingly enough, open. A banquet table is piled high with clean white plates, neat rows of upside down coffee cups, all ready for the conference that never happened. She flips a switch with her forefinger and a light spasms above her, finally jerking itself steady and illuminating the faces, on small shiny pins, of nearly forty fellow environmentalists she’ll never meet. They aren’t a great looking bunch. Their eyes are hidden by thick glasses, or they smile as if they were posing for security ID’s. She stares at her own face; the slight ironic crimp at the end of her lips and suddenly hates herself and hates the constantly dividing math of possibility. The less-white lies on her resume just to stay in place. The brilliant cynicism of younger employees at the nonprofit, cancelling themselves out before every lunchtime conversation can earnestly begin. Then back to work, blasting photos of polar bears swimming in Antarctic waters to thousands of names on a purchased list. No one was giving anymore. The helicopter-chopped waters around the polar bear weren’t enough. Someone in the Art department had half-jokingly suggested adding a baby cub.
At the banquet table she lifts the white cloth and feels the weight of the unused plates. She leans back, fingers tightening on the edge of the cotton. She thinks of the new texts on her cellphone. Pictures now of his balls, his toes, his finger in his ass. A fresh smear of blood on a refrigerator door, the flash reflected in the redness. Then rows of question marks, then nothing at all.
She holds the taut sheet as if she were making a bed, and imagines the weight on the other end, not caused by stacks of clean plates, but another pair of more patient human hands.
In his room, he hears the crash and shatter. The air outside is so cold and still, it amplifies everything. He turns on a light, sits on the edge of the bed. On the pull-out couch, the attendant and his girlfriend have fallen asleep in an embrace. After inviting them both back to his room, he had let them ransack his minibar, mentally adding up the cost of each little bottle they unscrewed. After showing them pictures of his wife and kids on his Blackberry, he must have spent an hour telling them about land-use rights, stratospheric ozone depletion, and the pros and cons of the Kyoto Protocol. They had started to kiss in the middle of his soft-spoken lecture, and then giggled as he purposefully went on, providing a wonderfully dull soundtrack that only heightened their fucking. Once or twice the girl looked back at him as she rode on top of her boyfriend, but then she forgot about him entirely. They didn’t ask his permission to spend the night and held each other tightly as they fell asleep. He only betrayed them once; taking a photograph of them with his Blackberry, and saving it in the folder quaintly labeled “Cool Strangers.” The girl’s eyelashes twitched when the flash popped, but neither woke up.
He closed the blinds hours ago, but he can clearly hear the other guest’s voice. It sounds as if she’s talking to him.
“I’m not very good at this,” she says. “They say when you’re nervous it’s always best to admit you’re nervous.”
A silence builds. He wonders how the sound can escape so effortlessly. Maybe it’s the glass windows. Or the altitude.
“I’m nervous,” she says. “I don’t know what comes next. Or if you’re really listening.”
He imagines her at the lectern, her hands illuminated by a thin lamp. There are no pages in front of her.
“What will you do for me? How are you going to change my life? I have this feeling we might have something in common.”
There is the faintest laugh, only caught by the microphone at the end.
“That’s a little desperate,” she says. “I don’t even know your name.”
There’s another sound. Like weeping, he thinks. A deep inhalation.
“Okay, nobody,” she says patiently. “Let me start again.”