Orlando by Elizabeth Hall

My first day in Orlando she did not call at all. Not when my plane touched down. Not when I handed my credit card to the hotel clerk: alone. Yes I am alone. I was not disappointed. I unlocked the door to room 254. A kitchenette with a double sink, cabinets stacked with glass plates, plastic wine chalices. A queen bed, a thin red coverlet stretched across white striped sheets. The tiles in the tub were blue, the same cerulean as the wallpaper that lined every room. The ac pumped and pumped. It was almost enough: an afternoon spent tucked in a strange bed reading. An evening sprawled by the pool, legs greased with sunscreen, sweaty chalice on the concrete. The sky pink at the edges. Deep creases of red running along the horizon. There were three pools, all heavily chlorinated, bright teal against the pink stucco of the hotel. Each pool was poured in the shape of a whale, a seahorse, a snail with wide, shallow antennae. I soaked in the smallest hot tub, next to the whale, along the outer band of the sprawling putt putt course which was lined, not with grass, but astroturf so green it made the real grass look sick.

In the glow of an electric tiki torch, I watched a woman in a skirted swimsuit sip sangria from a red plastic cup, fish out chunks of pineapple with her finger. The little white jets in the hot tub made my skin tingle. In the tail of the seahorse, two kids played a game of ring toss, or what looked like ring toss, from my distance. If there was a moon, I couldn’t see it. Every star blotted out by the high parking lot lights. I raised the chalice to my lips but missed my mouth, dropping the chalice in the tub. I watched a cloud of red wine rise to the surface of the water, fan out into thin purple tendrils. I lingered in the shadow of a palm frond, face blackened, until the man in khakis came with his big hoop keychain and scattered the children and locked the gate behind me. In my room I blasted the heat, dove straight into the sheets, still dripping chlorine. The room was dark, or dark enough, save the part in the curtains, strip of orange slicing the coverlet in two. I waited for my cell phone to light the room bright blue. I fell asleep like that: naked, phone in hand.

*

Her proposition had been simple: come. On the back of a post card she had scrawled: I will take you out to lunch. I will take you to the coast. The post card was mailed from Hungry, but by the time it had reached me in LA, she was already back in Orlando. I taped the post card to the fridge in my apartment. I called her twice but she did not answer. A month passed. She sent another card: come on down and I will show you the town. The next morning I borrowed my boyfriend’s credit card and booked a red eye flight to Orlando, then canceled it, then booked another for the last week in November. I sent her my arrival time and the address of my hotel in an email. I asked when will we meet? Three days later she wrote: I’ll call you when you land.

*

In the weeks before my trip, at night, in bed, I would close my eyes and imagine all the things we might do together in her city. We might hop the tram to Epcot, watch the fireworks mouths hung, fingers sticky with cotton candy. A slow drive to the coast. A long walk up the wide wooden planks of the marina where her boat was permanently docked. I would take her picture in the late afternoon sun. It was easy enough to imagine myself in the scene, camera lifted to my eye, but I could not picture her. Was her hair grey? Did she still dress in crisp pants suits? Wear too much perfume? I could not imagine her with wrinkled skin. I never thought of her a “grandmother.” I pictured her as I last saw her over fifteen years ago: sheer scarf wrapped around her head, French manicure, a man’s finger resting on her wrist, her tiny gold watch.

*

After my father’s death, I saw my grandmother infrequently. If she attended the funeral, I do not remember. I was only two years old at the time. No one took photos. What little I knew about my grandmother, I gleaned from the post cards she sent my older sister and me throughout our childhood. Although addressed to us, the cards were pure diary, rife with confessions about the rich foods she was eating, the flowing wine, all she saw as she traveled the world. She vacationed eleven months a year. The cards came in the mail from far off destinations, without warning, without any discernible pattern, except that they tended to arrive, if they arrived at all, during the last week of the month. My ritual was set: every afternoon during the last week of every month I would run to the big brown mailbox at the end of my parent’s driveway, past the rows of corn and butterbeans, past the chickens and the goats with their long, leathery tongues. No matter rain. No matter snow. I stood before the box and slowly opened the door. If there was a post card waiting for me, I did not read it immediately. I walked back to the house, card pressed against my chest. I sat on my bed, beneath two lamps, reading through every card she had sent. I did not read the cards to remember her so much as to imagine another kind of life. In the post cards, she created a precise image of herself: always on the go, never alone. It was important that we know: she had lovers. Wealthy lovers. One of them had even willed her a million dollars from his deathbed. Her lovers populated my adolescent imagination: they were men of leisure, men who spoke three plus languages, wore wrinkle-free linen, drank aperitifs early in the afternoon. With these men she walked hand in hand all over Sicily, pet the wild sheep in Switzerland, kissed and kissed and kissed again in the shadow of Big Ben. Or so the postcards had said.

*

On my second day in Orlando I woke in a strip of sun, head throbbing, stomach roiled and raw. The phone rang and rang before I realized it was ringing for me. A man’s voice filled the receiver: we’re outside your room. I asked who is this? It was Ron, my grandmother’s informal caretaker. Her paid companion. Her “boyfriend,” as she called him. In a thick southern accent, he asked do you see us? I opened the front door but the hallway was empty. We’re in the parking lot, he said. In front of your window. I walked out onto the balcony. The air was already heavy. No discernible breeze. I looked down at the parking lot. All I saw: a Dodge Ram truck. I don’t see you, I said. A man wearing a tan silk shirt opened the driver’s door of the truck and waved up at me. He said it’s you. He waved and waved. I struggled to make out the shape of her in the front seat of the truck. But there she was. Big black hat obscuring almost all of her face. I shut the sliding glass door. In the kitchenette I dumped packet after packet of powdered creamer into a steaming cup of coffee, swallowed two blue pills, my stomach still too tight to eat. My voice cracked when I said I’ll be down in a minute.

*

The sun was high in the center of the sky. The sky swept clean of clouds. As I neared the truck, it was Ron, not her, who reached out for my hand and crushed me into a hug. Through her opened car door, she called out let me see you. She raised the brim of her hat with one slender finger. Her lips were thin and pink. Her nose, aquiline. I could not see her eyes. You look so grown, she said, lowering her hat over her nose. I stared at her as she talked. She talked a lot: her cruise to Crete, her itchy sun burn. Ron shifted his weight from one foot to another. She dangled her legs out the side door but never placed them on the ground.

We were no longer alone. The parking lot crowded with minivans, children sporting black mouse ears, Ms. Minnie dresses stiff with crinoline. As my grandmother talked, I watched Ron. His hands were shaking. I asked where are we going? He put his hands in his pockets. I could see them vibrating behind the khaki fabric. He cleared his throat: your grandmother is not feeling very well today. I opened the back door of the truck. I said we don’t have to go anywhere or do anything special. There was nowhere for me to sit; the backseat was packed with boxes. I shut the door. Ron inched closer. Our faces almost touched. He said I think there’s been a misunderstanding. My grandmother straightened her hat on her head, eyes fixed on her own image in the mirror. A bad stomachache, she shrugged. Toxic shellfish. I backed away from Ron, into the hot metal side of the truck. She swung her legs inside the door: I’m too sick to do a single thing today. You understand. I looked down at my hands, which were still somehow holding the coffee cup. Ron’s breathing was fast and shallow. He turned to face her: come give your granddaughter a hug. She flew all the way from LA to see you. She buckled her seat belt with a single swift motion: I may be contagious. Ron huffed. She lifted her eyebrows. Ron positioned himself behind the wheel, saying nothing more. What about tomorrow? Before my plane leaves? I asked, finally able to move my mouth if no other part of my body. I’ll call you, she said.

*

I did not trip as I walked up the wide stucco steps, unlocked the door to room 254. I did not cry. I sat on the edge of the bed, eyes rolled wide, letting the ac blow full blast in my face, sap all the moisture from my inner eyelids. I sat high on a pile of pillows, phone silent. All afternoon. The room brown then black, save that strip of orange, blur of blue in the corner my eye. I looked over towards the blue light. The tv was on. I had not noticed this before. A woman in a beaded ball gown was saying to the camera: don’t hate me because I’m rich. Hate me because I’m beautiful. A soap opera set in Miami. The woman’s face was so tan and poreless, her thin smile exposing a neat file of white teeth. Hate me, hate me, hate me, she said. Her hair flowing in blond waves. No, I called out loud, thinking, for a moment, that she was speaking to me. I don’t hate you at all. I looked down at my arms, still folded in my lap, hair on end.

*
When I dialed my sister’s number, she answered on the first ring. I knew she would do this to you, she said. We spoke in starts and stops, interrupting each other, as it hardly mattered who said what: how could she? After all these years? Do you think she was reminded too much of our father? When we talked about my grandmother, the conversation was easy. I knew my part, what to say, when to pause. We had been having the same conversation about her since adolescence. She has all that money, my sister would say. And she traveled all over the world, I would echo. But she could not visit us even once. My breathing became less frantic with each sentence my sister uttered: why couldn’t she send us a birthday gift? A Christmas card? I followed her cue; I played my part well: why was it so hard for her to call us? We said it again and again. As if trying to break her spell over us. I hung up the phone—after having not spoken to my sister in two months—saying I love you I love you I love you.

*

Through the sliding glass doors of my room, I could hear the wind. I left my phone on silent beneath a pile of pillows and walked out into the drizzle. The air was thick. I struggled to breathe. There were security cameras perched high in the trees. Little white cameras with thin wire legs, easily mistaken for birds. I imagined my body as the security man saw it: a grey blob on a deserted course. Every hot tub filled but the one by the seahorse. The metal gate creaked when I opened it. The couple in the tub did not look up. I lowered myself limb by limb into the chalky water. I tried not to stare: the couple kissed sloppy, lips slipping, teeth clinking. They stopped only to eat. Bright red chicken wings from a yellow bucket. Fingertips shiny with grease. Red prints against collarbones, shoulders, up his neck, on her chin. When they spoke to each other, they slurred. I closed my eyes and breathed deep. Chlorine and chicken wings. I could feel the humid air pumping through each lung. My stomach empty, aching, as if it suddenly realized it had been empty all day. I reached for my chalice, drank it down in two long draws, belly full. I did not think of her. I thought about the poem my old roommate had taped to the mirror in our shared bathroom. We all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole, the poem read. I stared up at the heavy grey clouds, knitted solid. I imagined telling my boyfriend on the drive home from the bus station where he would pick me up tomorrow evening: She moves to keep whole. It was her thing. She moved right past me. No biggie. I could see anything I wanted in those low grey clouds. I saw myself sitting in a circle of friends twirling a glass of gin: I wanted to know her as a woman, not a grandmother, a woman. When she left me like that, I glimpsed her very essence. The narrative set. A story I could rehearse. I almost smiled to myself. I almost did. The surface of the water was calm. No drizzle. A mirror image: my face puffy beyond recognition. I did not smile.

The clouds began to thin, disperse in the wind. The couple piled the chicken bones on a tan hotel towel, tripped up the tub steps, legs shriveled, heels white against the bright green astroturf. I swam to one side of the tub then back. All alone save the gaze of the security cameras, mechanical pelican welded to the metal fence post; every hour the pelican cranked open its beak and announced the time one am, two am. I waited for the man with the big hoop keychain to lock the gate but he never showed his face. I soaked and I steamed. I boiled my insides near clean. Then I walked back to my room: grey blot, towel dragging in the dirt. In my room I did not look at my phone for one whole hour. Then, I did: no missed calls. I stared down at the phone as if by staring I would learn something about her I had missed before. I repositioned myself in front of the ac unit, turned the fan on high, and let it blow in my face, yet the trick did not work. I sobbed. On the edge of the bed, I sat and I sobbed. Eyes sick rabbit red.

*

There were team jerseys nailed to the wall, white license plates with plump oranges and bright sprigs of green. The walls were painted blue, offset with faux cherry wainscoting. I sat in a low booth. The table rocked beneath my elbows. On the glass top there were cork coasters with lucky clovers, a bottle of hot sauce, cap crusted over. When she called, I let the phone vibrate from one end of the table to the other, fall silent. She called again. I answered: I’m already at the airport. She was on her patio with Ron. They were drinking iced tea. Can you hear the lawnmowers? she asked. She spoke too fast. It was difficult to make out her words. I mailed a check, she said. Enough to cover your trip to Orlando. And a few more trips. I imagined Ron in a cushioned lounge chair in his pressed silk shirt, hands shaking, listening to her talk. I held the image of his splotched hands in my head, his pristine, clipped nails. She said you could visit Paris in the spring. The Caribbean for Christmas. My ear was sweaty was against the phone. Glass screen smeared with cheek grease. You could rent my boat and sail to Catalina. My chest pounded visibly through my white tank top. In China, she said, you can take your designer clothes to any tailor and have custom replicas sewn by hand. I did not tell her that I owned no designer wares nor did I mention how my stomach lurched when she said what a steal! I did not wait for her pause. I said thank you thank you my plane is boarding. Her last words: send me a post card from your trip!

 

Of this I am certain: no one saw me gasp. Not the businessmen sitting on the bench across from me, passing a Blackberry phone back and forth, laughing and pointing. Not the waitress who deposited a fresh snifter of gin on the table in front of me without taking her eyes off the tv above the bar. A muted talk show. I stirred my gin and slipped on my sunglasses and stared at the talk show host and his splotchy hands until I was sure I would no longer sob. Until the final boarding call.

*

On the plane I watched the clouds drop one by one. I rolled my overhead vent wide open and let the ac blow hard in my face. The man sitting next to me watched as I opened one tiny bottle after another. He glanced down at my hands then up at my face then at the woman sitting next to him who was reading, or pretending to read, US Weekly. Out the window there was nothing but hard blue. The richness of the color made my head ache. I shut the shade. I visualized the clouds below me, but my mind worked itself back to where it wanted to go. A fantasy. I rip up the check. I just rip it up and throw it away.

*

If there was a check. If.

*

When the plane landed, all that was left of the sunset was a thick band of purple ringing the mountains. The bus was delayed. I waited on a narrow concrete median, jacketless, shivering in the shade. The night was cool and hazy. The air tinged red from the glut of taillights. I waited. There was a fat rat edging along the median, moving trash can to trash can, hiding or feasting. A woman with a red suitcase was wearing four inch heels, carrying a white leather purse with a cat’s face spray painted across the front. The wait soothed me. I just stood there. The wind made my sweater flap against my hips. Across the parking lot, there was a cell phone tower disguised as a palm tree, outfitted with plastic branches, fronds made of green plastic tinsel that shook in the breeze just like the real thing. I pulled my sweater tighter against my body. I was glad I knew how to wait. How to stand still and wait for the bus in the weak moonlight, tinsel fluttering, catching in the wind.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Hall lives and loves in Los Angeles. Her chapbook, Two Essays, is newly released from eohippus labs. More of her work can be found at preciouslittlelambpit.tumblr.com