I’m in the back seat of an airport taxi, scrunched between my luggage and my co-worker Charlie, who wouldn’t have been my first choice of companions for a business trip to Chicago in the winter, but neither was the business trip to Chicago in the winter. To be honest, the real choice was Chicago or getting another job, so I dug out my heavy coat, gloves, and hat, because the bills come every month, regardless of place or season.
The taxi driver weaves through traffic, honking doom to idiots who don’t clear a path, streaming rapid conversation, asking where ya from, what ya here for, how long ya here for?
The hotel rises along the river, opposite Marina Towers, a moot detail because the room I’ve been assigned is situated at the back where the El screeches round the corner. It’s not what I expect. A couch and lamps anchor each end of the long rectangular space, with stiff-backed chairs lining the perimeter, and two mirrored matching bathrooms, one of them a storage closet for even more chairs. The side-by-side doors to the hall can’t be bolt-locked, and worse, the brocade velvet drapes won’t close. I am clearly being housed in what is usually a conference room improvised by knocking out walls between two guest suites.
I complain of course, but the concierge downstairs just shrugs, says something about a plumbing leak, Toolmaker’s Convention, no other options, and I’ve already called around and discovered that he’s right, unless I want to stay someplace questionable halfway to Cicero, a solution complicated with its own logistical problems. Do I at least get a discount?
He shoves a voucher in my direction. Drinks on the house, he says.
In the nearly deserted bar, Charlie drones on about the customer presentation we’re both supposed to make—which he doubtless will monopolize with dazzling tech-speak acronyms—then moves on to his Ex, his Kids, the Dog he left behind. The bartender paces, runs through the same spiel as the taxi driver: where ya from, what ya here for? I make up something exotic for his entertainment. Past the smudgy window, snowflakes fall in wet clumps, reminding me that plum blossoms already bloom on the West Coast.
As the night thickens, Charlie starts to tilt into me, not romantic exactly, but hinting broadly at a real bed instead of the rickety rollout that awaits me in that converted conference room. The clock ticks steadily towards the dreaded wakeup call, and the bartender, amused by my room fiasco and Charlie’s generous tips, has been liberal with his pours.
I reason how being in this bar on this trip to this city is a choice I made, that Charlie’s bed or mine is also a choice, how, mindful of Charlie’s tilt, I can navigate both of us to my cavernous room, where the foldout bed waits positioned smack in the middle under the chandelier—the one spot shadowed from the neon sign that blinks on blinks off blinks on again—how I can ease him onto that frumpy mattress, remove his natty wingtips mid-snore, tuck him in, and then slip out with the key to his frequent flyer upgrade room. There, I can draw the drapes on the whitening cityscape, slide into a properly cornered King bed, and swing deep and low until daybreak.
In the meantime, this scotch on those rocks is free and that, also, is a choice I have.
an escaped tech writer, now finds truth in fiction zooming round and about the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been published most recently in Club Plum and The Centifictionist (May 2021).
Mental Distancing in the Time of Quink, flash fiction in Issue 4
of MacQueen’s Quinterly (July 2020) and winner of our Quink Writing