I had no expectations for Albany, no preconceived notions, nor any way of getting my bearings. I couldn’t associate a landmark with it or think of one notable thing to have ever emerged from the city. From the bus depot, I walked in the only direction that led towards population: down a sidewalk, along a road.
I found a Holiday Inn and walked into the empty lobby. “Do you have any rooms available?” I asked.
The guy at the desk was young. His nametag read “Jonathan,” the same name as the first boy I ever kissed. It was a good omen.
“Let me check.” He typed things into a computer and looked up at me. “What do you want?”
“A room. For one.” “Queen? King? Smoking? Non-smoking?” “What’s the cheapest?” “I can give you a queen for $125.” “Per night? Can I get something cheaper?” “Are you an AAA member?” “No.” “Any family in the military?” “I’m Canadian, does that help?” “Not really.” He scrolled through something on his screen. “I didn’t know you could negotiate hotel prices.” “There are ways.” He looked up. “Okay, I can get you a king-sized bed for $75 a night.”
It was still more than I wanted to pay, but Jonathan looked so proud of the rate that I accepted it. When he found out I didn’t have a credit card, he was stumped. “How can you not have a credit card?”
“I have cash; I can pay you now.”
After ten more minutes of typing and exchanging money, he handed me the key to the room. “It won’t be ready until two.” “What time is it now?” “Eleven.” My face must have sagged in disappointment because he leaned towards me and started speaking quietly even though no one else was around. “Listen, I know the room’s clean and ready. Go, I’ll take care of it.”
The room was on the second floor with a window that looked onto a parking lot and a highway. The bed was sprawling and there was a painting hanging above it, a forest landscape of green, draping trees and a dark blue river, a stark contrast to what I saw outside the window.
In the bathroom there were a million mirrors and they all fogged up when I took a shower.
I rubbed a spot dry and looked at myself reflected over and over again as I combed my hair. The steam shone in the lights like dust motes in a sunbeam.
Jonathan was still at the front desk when I went back down.
“Hey,” he said. “How are you?” “I’m hungry,” I admitted. I’d eaten a cranberry muffin at the bus station and I’d had a donut and a bagel that morning, but I needed something more substantial. “Is there somewhere cheap to eat around here?” “Not really, if you don’t have a car,” he said. “It’s the weekend. Most businesses around here are closed; it’s a government town. If you don’t mind waiting, I can bring you somewhere.”
He was wearing a white button-down shirt and his hair was cut short and I could see the ghost of a few zits on his neck and jawline. His cheeks were pink — he was embarrassed about asking.
“That would be great,” I said. “My shift ends at six.”
While I waited for him, I went outside walked to the only thing that had looked interesting on the map in my room, Empire State Plaza. I was surprised by how vast it was. It was paved with white concrete and marble and had gigantic monoliths flanking the sides and a reflective pool running down the centre. On one side of the square, there was a structure shaped like an egg, and I got the feeling that I’d been transported to a version of the future, like I was in a science fiction novel. This city was weird.
A group of boys were skateboarding, but I heard them before seeing them. The wheels rolling against the smooth concrete made the best scraping noise. I watched them for a few minutes until a voice came crackling over a loudspeaker telling them to stop. I couldn’t see a guard — he must have been watching from above. The kids rolled for a bit longer before hopping off their boards and lazily walking away.
I returned to the hotel at six and followed Jonathan to the parking lot. His car was messy and he cleared a backpack off the front seat before I sat down. “Is McDonald’s okay?” he asked.
Jonathan was a college student. He was attending SUNY for business and he’d worked at the hotel for the past two years. He liked it, he said. It was easy. If no one was around, he could study at the front desk. He was planning on staying in Albany when he graduated and combining his business degree with what he knew about hotels and tourism. He asked me about my plans for the future, and at first I assumed he was joking, as if I looked like the kind of person who had a good answer to that question.
At McDonald’s, we sat with our trays in a corner. He’d ordered a six-pack of chicken McNuggets in addition to his Big Mac.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” he asked. “I’m going to New York City to visit a friend, but I felt like stopping here first.” “Where are you from?” “Montreal.” “Cool.” He dipped his fries in the McNuggets sauce and offered it to me too. “Have you been to New York before?” “Never.” “You’ll love it.” “How do you know?” “Everyone does.”
Jonathan talked to me about the type of people who stayed at the hotel, government workers or business people who stayed in town for a few days for conferences or meetings. He could always tell what couples were having affairs. He told me about a football player he’d checked in last weekend; I didn’t recognize the name, but Jonathan assured me that he’d been a nice guy who had even left a good tip for the cleaning lady, which was something people often forgot or just didn’t do.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked on the drive back. No other cars took the highway exit for the hotel. Downtown Albany was truly no man’s land on the weekend. “I don’t. Do you? A girlfriend, I mean.” “Jill,” he said. “She’s at NYU. I see her on the weekends, but not so much recently. She’s been really busy.” “It’s almost finals.” “Yeah, I guess.”
Jonathan was so nice; I hoped Jill would come back, or if she didn’t, that he’d find someone nice in Albany. He was the type of boy I should fall for. I thought about what it would be like to date him, to live in the grey peacefulness of Albany and learn how to skateboard in the Empire State Plaza, to meet minor celebrities passing through hotels, not many but enough to build up a good repertoire of stories.
He pulled into the hotel parking lot and we both got out and stood outside.
“Thanks for the drive,” I said. “And the food, and the rate.” “It was no problem, Zoe.” He rubbed my shoulder when he said it. If he’d hugged me, I would’ve wrapped my arms around him without hesitation, and if he’d kissed me, I would’ve kissed him too, even though he had a girlfriend, even though I don’t think I really liked him that way. “In case you need anything, here’s my phone number. If you get bored tonight or if you want to stay in Albany, you can call.” He hesitated. “I’m an idiot; I don’t think I ever told you my name. I’m Bill.” “It’s not Jonathan?”
He looked confused for a second. “I couldn’t find my nametag this morning, so I borrowed someone else’s.”
“Oh,” I looked at him again in the orange glow of the parking lot light and it was funny because he didn’t look like a Bill.
I took the slip of paper. This time we did hug, but it was a bit unwieldy, too much space between our bodies, and maybe I wouldn’t have actually kissed him if he’d tried.
I watched Bill’s car back up and he blinked his lights at me. The person working at the front desk was an older man and he ignored me when I entered through the automatic doors. Was he the real Jonathan?
I kept Bill’s number on my nightstand and felt like it radiated something good. I fell asleep easily and didn’t dream of anything, or if I did, I couldn’t remember when I woke up early the next morning to catch the first bus to New York City.
About the Author: Teri Vlassopoulos is the author of the short story collection, Bats or Swallows (2010), and a new novel, Escape Plans (2015). Her fiction has appeared in Room Magazine, Joyland, Little Fiction, and various other North American journals. She is the cookbook columnist for Bookslut, and has had non-fiction published at The Toast, The Millions and The Rumpus. She can be found at http://bibliographic.net or @terki. She lives in Toronto. BUY TERI'S BOOK ESCAPE PLANS!
Photo Credit: Sara Stell