My mother had always said I lacked ambition. It sounds cruel, but it’s true. That drive, that fire that pushes people is more of an absent-minded flicker in me. I had been stubbornly average in high school, teetering on mediocre, before half-heartedly enrolling in some community college classes after I graduated. None of them stuck, which is how I ended up cleaning strangers’ messes in the Pinewood Hotel.
People act differently in hotels. It’s their impermanence, you stay a couple of nights, leave, and you think it grants you anonymity. That’s because if I’m doing my job right, I’m a ghost. I rarely see the guests and I prefer it that way. Instead I learn through half-open suitcases, marks blooming on towels and sheets, souvenirs bought on a whim to be shoved on unsuspecting relatives.
When I was younger, what excited me most about playdates was going to other people’s houses. You look at someone’s walls, their neatly disheveled living room, the framed photos from Disney World. That was just small talk. It’s the hidden places, the drawers, boxes in cupboards, trash cans. That’s when I really start to listen.
I like wearing a uniform, it’s what people see when they look at you. The first room is a family, the hotel’s cot keeping watch over the scattered toys and towels on the floor. I can tell it’s a little girl after I rescue a miniature Mary Jane from under the bed. After surveying the discarded dresses on the bed, I decide they must be in town for a family event. Wedding, maybe. Hanging them in the closet I realize they’re all black- funeral, then.
I go like this from room to room, examining the imprint each life has left behind. I spend time erasing their filth, scrubbing stained toilets and changing soiled sheets, allowing them to avoid the ugly realities of their human bodies.
There is one stranger I recognize. I first began to notice him because he would make his own bed. His room was meticulous, as if expressing some desire to demonstrate how self-sufficient he was, how meaningless my job was. Perfume lingered aggressively in the air, so I knew he hadn’t been alone. It was probably an affair, the wealthy were predictable in that way, but I didn’t think the cleanliness was out of fear of being caught. Every time he visited, I would find a bank note folded on the pillow in a different origami shape, a crane, a boat, a fox. It was as though his tip was taunting me, acknowledging my presence only in order to mock it.
At times I tried to picture him, them. Sometimes I imagined myself in her place, simmering with anticipation, smiling complicity across the elevator. Was it love, or a distraction? There were some things a room couldn’t tell you, whether he thought about her during conference calls or his children’s soccer games, whether she felt hallow or alive on the taxi ride home.
I slid the key into its electronic lock and wondered what paper animal awaited me this time. It was always the same room, a suite overlooking the water, but it wasn’t until I reached the bed that I knew something was different. All of the sheets were stripped, and nowhere in sight. Instead of an origami creature there was a white envelope placed on the pillow. Inside it, $1000, no note.
Otherwise, nothing seemed out of place. No shattered lamps, no cracked wine glasses, nothing even in the trash cans. I sat on the edge of the bare bed. I kicked my shoes off and lay down, uncoiling my body along the scratchy length of the mattress. What had happened here?
I don’t know how long I lay like that, watching the shadows claim more of the bedroom wall. It seemed to me that when I stood, answers would follow. I swung my feet over the bed and tentatively placed them on the ground, where I felt a lightly damp carpet soaking through my socks. Crouching down to inspect the carpet more closely, I could tell it had just been cleaned, a stain erased, although in my professional opinion, not well. My fingertips came away lightly pink, like a sunburn.
My phone rang. It was my manager, probably wondering why I was so far behind schedule. Shoving my shoes back on and the envelope in my bag, I quickly left the room. That night and the days that followed, it seemed to me that everything I had done in that room had been a mistake. I had confirmed everything he had suspected of me, that my silence was cheap and easy. Regret metastasized with each hour as my guilt seemed messily tangled in his. The money lay in my bag where I had left it, I began to hope someone would steal it.
I pulled myself through each room, willing my body through the motions of cleaning, but strangers belongings no longer felt like intriguing threads to be pulled apart. It was another week before I found myself on his floor, painstakingly scrubbing each room to stretch out the time before I would have to confront the suite. When I finally pushed my cart towards his door I was abruptly stopped by a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging from the handle.
I leaned my head against the door, hungrily listening for the noise of bodies inside. I could hear nothing. In a quick, thoughtless motion I took the sign off the handle hid it amongst the things on my cart. My knuckles felt obscenely loud as they hit the center of the door in three swift motions.
The wait was long, or short, before the handle finally moved and the door was ajar. Perfume. I recognized the smell immediately, it was so familiar that I barely registered the woman’s face. Instead my eyes traveled backward, into the room where I saw a pair of men’s shoes resting neatly beside the door. I cleared my throat and turned towards the woman’s expectant and mildly annoyed face.
“I’ll come back later.”