by Joe Ponepinto
Take a room at a five-star establishment.
Dress nicely. Don’t worry about wearing the same shirt as yesterday; no one will notice.
Frequent the lobby. It’s a good place to size up your fellow guests. Drop in during the late afternoon, as this is one of the busiest times. Position yourself in a plush chair within sight of the front desk and observe the goings-on. Try not to stare—it makes people uncomfortable and only draws attention to you. Bring a newspaper or book to glance at occasionally, and you should avoid being mistaken for an undesirable or a voyeur. Once accepted as part of the hotel community, take in the full detail of your surroundings—the reproductions of famous paintings, the grand piano that no one ever plays. Consider the glint of the marble floor that broadens like a river delta from the revolving doors to the registration desk, and bask in this opulence. Relax. This hotel is your home for now.
The lobby can be a cold place when you are on your own. So should another guest look your way, nod in acknowledgement of your shared status among the dwindling number who deserve such luxury. Offer subtle, knowing glances to the more attractive and better-dressed of them. Such people are likely to be well traveled, and the right look may intimate familiarity, as though you’ve met previously in another location. If someone returns your gaze, gather your courage. Smile, approach, and suggest a prior encounter at another hotel, whose name you have trouble recalling. “Didn’t we have lunch at the… um… oh, why can’t I remember? The place with the great view.” Be vague enough to allow your acquaintance to fill in the details of this recollection. Cup your hand to your chin and furrow your brow as you pretend to continue searching for the name. Keep smiling to cover your latent despair. You will be surprised how many people can be persuaded they’ve met you before. Some will accept that it happened and they have simply forgotten, and you can tell them it’s all right, you forget many such encounters yourself. Others will concur out of politeness, since most people do not like to be thought rude. At that point, offer to buy drinks. Be persistent, since it’s been a long time since you’ve seen this person.
Ask if Ted is here too. (Everyone knows a Ted, and the name doesn’t sound made up.)
In the hotel bar, pay attention to employee badges and call staff by their first names, as in, “Thank you, Mario. I’d like the booth in the corner today.” Be sure to include “today.” Choose the darkest part of the bar. Order without looking at the menu, but do not ask for “the usual,” since the workers will have no idea what that is. Try, “I feel like a vodka gimlet today, Mario. With Grey Goose if you please.” Mario may look at you strangely, but this will not be a problem, since your new friend will still be busy trying to recall whom, exactly, you are. Begin to order your guest’s drink: “And (you should have the name by now) will have a…” Start to laugh here, as though you remember the last time this person ordered a certain drink, and it triggers a good memory.
Ask how your friend has been since the last time you met. Continue to probe with general questions. Ask about recent travels. Mention similar venues in order to exhibit shared tastes and interests. For example, if your friend has vacationed in Switzerland, say you recently returned from Helsinki. (It sounds exotic, but actually no one cares about Helsinki, so it’s a safe bet your new companion won’t ask for specifics.) Say you were disappointed with your accommodations there, and had trouble because not enough people spoke English to suit you.
Avoid talk of current events. Do not bring up sensational murder cases or political controversies, either in this country or abroad. Don’t even think of broaching religion. Keep the conversation light, and be sure to chuckle occasionally to reinforce the idea that you are having a good time. You’ll be surprised how effective this is in convincing your guest that the two of you are friends. It will also go a long way in helping you forget the real reason you are living at the hotel.
Order the crab cake appetizer. Comment that the preparation here is nothing like the crab cakes at the Waldorf. When the dish comes, take a bite, frown, and signal for Mario to take it back. Tell him the crab cakes taste “a bit too fishy.” Say you will have another vodka gimlet instead.
Begin to ask personal questions of your guest. A few examples: Are you still looking for a new job? How did that investment opportunity work out? How’s your golf game (men)? What did you think of the Oscars (women)? Try not to appear bored by the answers. Remember, disdain for such mundane topics is one of the reasons you are here.
When the check comes, pay for the drinks. Sign as J. Henderson, Room 678. Tip well, and make sure your guest sees your generosity.
Do not mention you have no idea who J. Henderson is, and that you are really in room 812. But do say you are in a standard room because your usual suite is being renovated. Ask, “Where did they put you?”
Because it is expected of friends, ask about family matters. “How is your wife/husband?” Allude to offspring. “You have two children, right? They were real achievers, if I remember.” If your guest is not married, or does not have kids, chalk it up to faulty memory, made worse by too much travel and a hectic schedule. If it turns out your friend has children, but one or more of them are disappointments, perhaps didn’t get into the right college or failed to pass the bar, apologize quickly. Tap the side of your head with your knuckle to indicate you make these kinds of mistakes often, and you did not mean to bring up a bad situation. Quickly switch the topic to popular movies or music.
It may be your friend is catching on that you do not really know each other. Signs of this include looking nervously around the room, checking a watch or wall clock, and commenting about a meeting beginning soon. Assure your friend that no meetings start this late in the day. If the person tries to end the conversation and leave, offer to buy dinner. If the answer is no thanks, follow your friend out and mention you are interested in (select one): the investment opportunity you discussed, becoming a client, or recommending this person to a CEO you know who is looking for someone with this kind of talent and experience.
Do not let your desperation for company show, but if necessary, take your friend by the arm and use force to get into the hotel restaurant.
When seated again, calm your guest with a glass of Pinot Noir.
Suggest the tenderloin medallions. Say they are not of the quality you are accustomed to, but the dish is at least passable.
Keep the conversation going. Nothing defuses a good time like protracted silence. But realize your constant inquiries will encourage your acquaintance to open up about home and family, and worse, will prompt questions about yours. Be careful not to fall into this trap. Your family’s troubles are best left unspoken. Why torture yourself with a situation you are trying so hard to forget?
However, if your friend asks directly about your spouse, you’ll have to answer. In that case relate a happy and open relationship with a person who travels as much as or more than you. Say that it’s the distance between you that keeps desire alive. If there are questions about your kids, say simply that they are grown and finding their own paths.
Pretend to be interested in your guest’s life, even though you would rather talk about more intellectual pursuits, such as history or opera. You recently finished reading a book on the atrocities of the First World War, but resist the urge to discuss it, as some people are apt to become bored during your explication. Finger the two tickets to La Bohème in your pocket, but do not take them out. Don’t spend time now fretting over spending the last of your cash on those two tickets when you knew you could only use one. Fight the urge to reminisce about nights on the town with your spouse. Work to stay engaged in the conversation. Remember that this person is your guest, and deserves your attention, despite the memories that threaten to overwhelm you.
Put your divorce behind you. Ignore that your children have moved to other parts of the country and decreed that you not call them. Block the memory of your former business partner, who, frankly, deserves one of the lower circles of hell for cheating you out of your half of the company, among other crimes.
Forget, for now, that your conscience visits you each night, taking the form of a long-dead poet, and the two of you argue until past midnight about your many flaws and shortcomings, and whether your misfortunes can be blamed on others, or are really your fault.
Do not relate the details of last night’s talk about how your children abandoned their college educations, settling for jobs in the porn and fast food industries, or how your spouse betrayed you by having a series of affairs, although you remained clueless until you walked into the bedroom and found your spouse with your business partner.
Your conscience, who speaks to you in verse, claimed you brought it all on yourself, asking, “Who could live with one so demanding / and unforgiving, so obsessed / with the perfection of others, and yet / so short of that mark oneself?”
Of course you were demanding, you said. It’s how you built a business; how you proved you were better than the competition. You made sure your employees had the same attitude. If you cut corners or reneged on promises, well, that’s how business is done. You never asked for favors. You trusted no one—how could you? Success came by staying strong in the face of adversity. Remind yourself to stay strong now.
You tried to cultivate your children’s aesthetics, to show them how success, as relentless as its pursuit may be, provides the trappings of a better life. They called you a snob, cold and obsessed with personal image, heartless towards your own family. But should you have lied to them? Your daughter’s modern dance did resemble epilepsy. And maybe you shouldn’t have walked out on your son’s piano recital, but how else was he going to get the message you’d tried for so long to teach?
It only proves how right you were that they took everything so personally, and couldn’t appreciate when you were being constructive. How sad to realize your own family would never live up to the potential you had dreamed for them, despite the money lavished on lessons and private tutors, the trips to museums and theater to show them the finer things in life.
What a shock it was when they confronted you, the three of them in your study, cornering you, blocking the door like hit men, forcing you to listen to their litany of complaints. They said they’d lived like prisoners for years, victims of your insults and abuse, afraid to stand up for themselves and for each other. They said you were not a father, not a husband, but a tormentor, filled with loathing for anyone who couldn’t meet your impossibly pretentious standards. You’d never shown affection, they said. Your tiny heart had frozen sometime years before, somewhere in your lifetime of disappointments, and had shut itself away from the world, refusing blood, refusing warmth.
True, you’d never been one for open display. Could that have driven them to such extremes?
Do not admit to yourself that you miss them. Not yet.
But perhaps they have given you something to think about. Now, living in one hotel after another, you have the time to consider it, and you’ve realized just how long are the days when your thoughts are your only company. No wonder you hate to drink and dine alone.
At least you are free now to enjoy the finer things in life whenever you want—to appreciate the thrill of a gallery exhibition, a classic independent movie, the satisfaction of well prepared food and drink. Your conscience laughed at this and said, “The beauty you see / in a painting or a plate of veal / is but a reflection of ego. / You see no beauty in people.”
Yet, you look forward to continuing the argument—it is the only interesting discussion you get to have anymore.
For now, you must do with the company of this stranger at your table whom you hijacked from the lobby. Order another glass of wine with dinner, and this time don’t bother to ask if your guest would like one too. Enjoy yourself—unencumbered from the weight of relationships, you can do whatever you like.
You will take your revenge on them all, living in this hotel. You have a fine room, kept in order by a staff of housekeepers well trained in the art of cleaning and maintenance, even if they are not good conversationalists. You have decent meals and wines, although they could be better (and you may leave a note for the chef and the sommelier later with some suggestions). Above all, you have the dignity of someone who enjoys a quiet, uncompromising life, free from responsibilities. It’s no wonder you moved here, where no one needs to know your real name, the real you. In a hotel, every guest commands respect.
If you have made it to dessert and your dinner companion is still with you, take out those tickets. Point out that if you skip dessert and leave now, you can just make it to the theater in time for the overture. When your friend declines, do not wrinkle your brow in condescension. Smile. Say you can call the box office after dinner and exchange them for another evening, even though this is not true. Exhale slowly, to relieve the frustration.
Look into the eyes of your waiter, Maureen, when she asks if you’d like coffee. Note the humility there. This is a person who works for minimum wage and likely has no prospects for advancement. But look deeper and you will see the contentment that comes from a family to return to at the evening’s close. Wonder if your eyes appear as complex to your waiter as hers are simple to you; if they advertise, as you believe, the sophistication of a life filled with learning and experience, with pride in the face of insult and loss, or if she sees you merely as another guest on another day.
As the conversation with your guest winds down, hoist the last of your wine as though making a toast. Silently intone the names of your children, and then of your spouse. Put the glass to your lips before the memory becomes too powerful to bear.
Thank your companion for a fine evening. Mention you will be in touch about the job/investment/business opportunity you discussed, even though you both know you will never contact each other again.
Secretly sign your friend’s name and room number on the check. Leave a large tip.
Go back to the bar. Sit where you can watch the couples and groups having a good time. Smile when someone accidentally bumps into you. Be gracious when you are asked if the empty chair next to you can be moved to accommodate a person in another party. Sip your drink slowly, as you have already had too much.
As the crowd thins out, engage Mario in conversation. Ask him about his work and whether he enjoys meeting so many people. If he seems pleasant, ask him if he has ever been to the opera.
When the bar closes return to your room. Congratulate yourself on being able to pass another day in the company of strangers. Really, who needs family and friends? Pack your bags, as you will be leaving early tomorrow, before the management deduces who has been signing other people’s names on food and drink charges. Damn your former business partner to hell for leaving you in such financial straits. Reflect on the guest with whom you shared the evening, but try not to be judgmental. You’ve done enough of that for today.
Order a double scotch from room service and prepare to greet your conscience. When the drink comes, be sure to say thank you and address your server by first name. Tip generously.