The first thing my sister said when I opened the door was: “God, your flat is a mess.”
It almost certainly was, compared to hers. Pina lived in a loft with big windows. She stepped over my scattered clothes, flung the curtains open, and sat on the edge of the sofa. I asked if she wanted tea, then retracted the offer because I’d forgotten to buy any.
“I’m taking you on a trip,” she said.
“You should come.” She crossed her legs. “It’s free, so there’s no reason for you not to.”
“I don’t have the time…”
She smirked to annoy me because we both knew I had the time. “I need your opinion. It will be nice.”
Then: “Don’t make me beg, Tom.”
But Pina would never beg. She was a big-shot writer for an arts magazine with moneyed donors. She interviewed people like the head of the London Cordon Bleu. You didn’t get the job by being weak, without knowing how to get your way.
“It’s just one night,” she said. “It will help, I think.” She looked around the living room. “You’re wallowing.”
It was different than expected. I’d assumed Soho chic, the sort of hotel that advertised a rooftop pop-up serving overpriced cocktails. But this place — it called itself BOUTIQUE; a boutique what? — was an old manor in rolling Surrey, far from any train station. The furthest out of London I’d been in ages.
“Surely too old-fashioned for the magazine,” I said.
“It’s a new concept,” Pina told me. She’d hopped out of a cab in a blue vinyl trench coat and floppy hat, dragging behind her a tiny Samsonite. I hadn’t realised we were meant to dress up.
“We’re not,” she said.
I stared up at the mansion, set far back from the road. Old brick and stucco covered in ivy. Pina pressed an intercom button, and a moment later the tall black gate opened to let us in.
“Did you look it up?” she asked.
I hadn’t had the energy. Gravel crunched under our feet.
“Just don’t get weirded out,” she said.
“By the hotel?”
“The concept,” she said.
“What is it?”
She shrugged and fished in vinyl pockets to pull out her mobile. “A stately building,” she spoke into it, “which at first glance brings to mind a city oligarch’s summer residence… belies the unique experience awaiting guests inside…”
I wasn’t sure if I wanted an experience.
In the manor’s foyer-turned-lobby, a posh man with a moustache handed us keys and pointed us down a narrow hallway. Their concept still eluded me. The walls were darkly wallpapered with textured leaves and flowers.
“Reception tight-lipped…” Pina mumbled, “presumably to encourage a mode of self-discovery from the beginning…”
I stopped at my room, which had a big 9 gold-embossed on the door.
“This is me treating you, by the way,” Pina said. “To get your mind off things.”
I offered a tight-lipped smile and didn’t say anything. She left me in the hallway to find her own room, still describing things into her phone.
I found the first note on a polished table right by the door.
Thank you for staying with us.
The message was printed on a little slip of pink paper with a BOUTIQUE letterhead.
In travel, guests seek to transport themselves not only physically, but mentally.
I thought these were just the usual pretensions.
It can be difficult, the note continued, to distance oneself from the stressors of day-to-day life, even in a home away from home. BOUTIQUE eschews the usual sterility of luxury. Instead, we elevate the senses with an experientially-focused stay that evokes, above all else, intimate human connection.
Then I noticed the scent. I thought they’d forgotten to prepare the room. Hotels usually smelled aggressively clean, of pine and sandalwood. Instead I inhaled something not wholly unpleasant, but muskier and slightly astringent. Closer to cologne.
The room didn’t look like luxury. It was someone’s bedroom. The bed was made but with rumpled linens. Faded Persian rugs lining the hardwood. A bookcase in one corner, stuffed with celebrity biographies, mycology, atlases, countless Russian novels. One paperback lay open and face-down on the bedside table, under an ugly red lampshade. Framed photographs of strangers hung on the walls, along with a smattering of loose pictures tacked up above a chunky, lacquered desk. The same man was in a lot of the photos. Bright eyes, smiling in each one. Good teeth.
We offer more than an escape, another pink note read, this one out on the desk for me to find. We offer the opportunity to slip into someone else.
“Isn’t it incredible?” Pina asked. She had booked us for dinner in the old conservatory at the back of the manor. She was already three drinks down, on the house because the staff recognised her from the magazine.
“I don’t like it,” I said.
“You should have looked it up.”
“People pay money for this?” My exasperation was slipping out.
“They do,” she said. “It’s like you get to explore a whole life. This is completely unique.” She tipped her wine glass up and emptied the red. “Have you found out their name yet?”
“You haven’t looked around?”
“Is that the point?”
“There’s no point,” Pina said, miffed I wasn’t acting more grateful. “You can do whatever you want. I’ve been snooping around. I get the sense people will like imagining that they’re not themselves for a while. It’s like a relief.”
A waiter brought over more wine. Pina stuck out her glass. “Mine is called Emilia,” she continued. “I found her diary under the bed. She’s in an unhappy marriage. Dreaming about a divorce and a trip up the Nordic fjords, on one of those postal ships. It’s all very romantic.” She paused and gazed up at the ceiling. “Or at least, that’s what I think is going on.”
My stomach felt heavy. “How am I going to sleep in a bed a stranger has been in?”
Pina gawked at me, then tilted her head back to laugh. “It’s not real,” she said. “The people aren’t real.”
“Did you think they were paying strangers to stay in the rooms between guests? Tom, you’re…,” Pina laughed again. “They set it all up for you, to make it seem like it. It’s a performance.” She leaned forward. “I can go through Emilia’s room and get the full sense of her. I smell patchouli on her clothes. Hair and skin serums in the bath. And in my mind it connects to the diary, the furniture. All of her choices.”
I blushed at Pina’s condescension. “So this hotel is trying desperately to be unique.”
I was trying to sound withering but she ignored it. “And they do a good job, right? It’s all thought-out and it’s totally novel. That’s why it’s luxury.”
Pina pulled out her phone.
“I suspect even a careful observer,” she said, keeping eye-contact with me, “would be unable to discern without prior knowledge… the constructed nature of the experience…” She paused. “Though some might find it overly visceral.”
“They should hire you to write those little notes,” I said.
Pina ignored that too, but I think it cut. I sipped my wine.
“You should try to enjoy it,” she said.
“Did you tell them to put me in a man’s room?”
She shrugged. That meant yes.
After dinner, I asked reception about the next train to London, but they said none were running until the next morning.
“And a taxi?”
“If you would like, they offer a fixed rate of one-hundred and fifty pounds.”
I was trapped.
Back in my room, I was hit again with the fake man’s scent and overcome with the feeling of having broken into the room of someone recently deceased. Of course Pina loved it here. A place this outlandish made a good review. Provided clicks.
I rifled through the fake man’s closet. Polo shirts and polished shoes. Swimming trunks printed with little flamingoes.
I studied the photos on the wall more closely. This fake man travelled. He looked to be hiking in many of the pictures. The mountains behind him were too big for England. Were the photos real or computer-generated? Had they hired a model to pretend a whole life?
I ordered a bottle of white to the room. It arrived in a silver ice bucket with two glasses, one of which I left in the hallway. For a brief moment, I was relieved I hadn’t made it home. Here I was distracted at least.
Wine in hand, I sat at the fake man’s desk and opened a black-bound book, left for me to find next to his pens.
to Mikhail, someone had written in wobbly non-cursive on the title page.
endless experience —
and this, to help you remember
Corny. The scratchy letters made it seem like a man’s hand. The book’s pages were glossy prints of deserted Italian piazzas, like something out of a museum gift shop. In each photo the sky was washed-out, almost white. The book’s pages felt used. Details.
I used this fake man’s — Mikhail’s? — shampoo and soap. They were scented with verbena and lathered luxuriantly fine, like shaving foam. It occurred to me that, of course, the hotel would never orchestrate the existence of someone with bad taste. They might be made to seem desperately unhappy, like Pina’s Emilia, but they would never stock a room with discount shower gel.
The thought was cynical and made me smile. I wondered if fake Mikhail was unhappy too. I imagined him strolling down arcades in rainy Turin or Milan, the face from the pictures. In my mind he was tall. I wondered whether he had a diary like Emilia. I’d read somewhere that men were less likely to keep one.
I stepped out of the shower. The towels were rumpled, just like the bedsheets. A pink, laminated tag hung from the heated rack. Every sensation, it read, is simultaneously embodied experience. A touch, a sight, a scent.
Were they getting more cryptic? Pina had said something about a guided experience. Profound fluff. I was tipsy from the wine and the heat of the water.
These sensations bypass conscious experience and remind us of forgotten moments, and of possible futures. The effects can be profound.
Despite myself, I lifted the towel up to my nose and inhaled. Amber, maple syrup. Smoky and slightly sour. The towel, warm from the rack and enveloped in steam, didn’t smell of cologne but of a man’s actual body. I was caught between pleasure and disgust. I imagined a white-gloved cleaner balling up the clean towel to muss it up, carefully spritzing the fabric with the calibrated, artificial smell of Mikhail the ghost.
Keeping it against my face, I inhaled, inhaled again. Thoughts formed, were quickly discarded. I towelled myself off.
If someone stayed in my flat they’d glean no personality at all.
I lay atop the coverlet, unsure what to do with myself. The wine was almost finished. I should have brought my melatonin. Pina infiltrated my thoughts. I saw her splayed across Emilia’s bed, cradling her work phone and muttering something awe-struck.
“The hotel is a revelation… a wholly novel way of identifying with place…”
Or something similarly wanky as she downed more complimentary wine.
“Though the experience is completely harmless, thoroughly refreshing… some might find themselves too frigid to accept… even the intimation of human contact…”
Then she would smirk, delighted at her own words and thinking of me.
My chest tightened. I’d always hated her writing. I rolled onto my side. Shadows from the bedside lamp traced long across the room, its scalloped shade breaking the light into bloody shards. Up close it was somehow uglier, like something disposed of by a nursing home and picked up at a charity shop. Underneath it lay an open paperback, spine cracked.
I’d do this with you
The same, angular handwriting from earlier was on the book’s title page. Some beach read set on the Amalfi Coast. Not my taste. I rolled my eyes at the thought of Mikhail’s suitor — that was my suspicion — writing him endless, saccharine notes in gifts. I rolled my eyes at the thought of Mikhail enjoying them.
I couldn’t sleep and perused the bookshelf instead, wondering which other books he might have received. I couldn’t find any more messages but saw that many of them had noted in one corner a small T. As far as I could tell it was in the same scratchy hand as the notes I’d found.
T, another T.
Maybe what I was smelling wasn’t Mikhail.
The drawers of the desk were full of pencils ground to stubs, erasers, raspberry lozenges, paperclips, pairs of sporty sunglasses. Details. I also found a single crumpled picture of the smiling man in the room’s pictures posing with his arm slung around another man. He had a darker complexion and looked more pensive, even though he was smiling too. The picture was taken in front of some vast body of water.
I held the picture up to the photographs along the walls but couldn’t see this second man anywhere else. I went through the room’s drawers, crawled under the bed, ran my hand along the back of the wardrobe’s half-hidden top shelf, suspecting I might find the torn shreds of other old photos. But if there were any more, they’d already been disposed of. Which meant they’d never existed.
The rubbish bin by the window was stuffed with balled-up paper. I reached in and smoothed one out on the desk, then another.
Do you remember that night on the coast?
I still think about it. The
wind gale from the ocean was so intense I thought that tree would surely flatten our tent. You slept through it
Then abandoned. His hand on the others was even less steady.
I know it might be too late for this
(Don’t start with I!)
So this was T’s room. T who was writing to Mikhail. He’d abandoned a plea to the man a dozen times, each start more desperate than the last, along with the occasional self-admonishment. I read them all.
Had he bought that kitschy photo book as potential offerings to complement his messages? Did he feel less exposed attaching his feelings for him to something solid?
Obviously not, because he’d kept these messages to himself. Discarded them.
I was holding my breath. Pathetic, for T to want someone back so desperately he was reduced to begging. Not just begging, but spending hours agonising over its formulation. I’d never given this much of myself to anyone, ever. I wouldn’t.
Poor, sad T.
I’d crawled back into bed and left my clothes in a heap on the carpet. The lights were off, curtains drawn. I smelled T every time I shifted positions and air puffed between the sheets. I’d heard that in France, perfumers were paid good money to concoct fragrances that appealed exactly to certain demographics. What kind of man did they want me to evoke?
His scent had mixed with mine.
I rolled onto my other side and it was different. Was it? Like pomegranate, floral, something close to cinnamon. Not T, I was sure of it, and not the smell of laundered sheets.
I buried my nose in the pillowcase on that side, half-asleep. I couldn’t trust my senses. In bed, often I felt like I was falling. But I was inhaling and smelled a scent that was certainly distinct. And in my lightly drifting mind, the implication was crystal — Mikhail, thought lost forever by T, sneaking back into this room one last time with his blessing, or maybe without it, whichever was more exciting. Mikhail’s return could never have been permanent, not with the aborted gifts to him all around. Not with that single photograph, hidden as a memory. It was Mikhail but only briefly, offering a last goodbye that T accepted because there was no way he wouldn’t. T, immersed in the moment and too scared to ask him to stay, grateful for an opportunity to relive what he remembered. Then they had slept, leaving trails on the fabric, before Mikhail disappeared as the sun rose. Mikhail — a letter from T smoothed out in my mind, his writing so clear it looked real — if I’d only had you a little longer. I could have gotten you to stay.
Do you agree?
I was on my stomach and felt fingers caressing the small of my back. I didn’t, I was imagining it. I’d always known better than to hope for a return, no matter how long I waited. It had been so long since I’d felt anyone at all.
The paper of another pink note was poking one thigh, or maybe I’d already drifted off. I groped for it, read it in darkness.
In experiencing an unknown, we surrender our sense of certainty. The feeling liberates. The room, already complete, relieves us briefly from the need to construct our own identities.
Was that what it said?
I was never very good at constructing myself.
Daniele Zurbruegg (he/him) is originally from Switzerland and lives in London, where he studies politics and tries to write. His stories have appeared in Tigershark Publishing and Untitled: Voices. A lot of his work is queer and sad, but he’s actually quite happy.
Find him on Twitter @cute_dan_milo.