First Out

When the alarms commenced, all civility vanished. Hundreds of hotel guests, most of them jarred from sleep, surged panic-stricken into the hallways and fought for entrance to the stairwells. Sylvia had requested a room on the top floor so as not to be bothered by tramping feet or flushing toilets, and now she realized her terrible mistake. A woman in a nightgown cursed and clawed at the sealed elevator doors. A teenager battered the hallway’s shatterproof window with a chair. Two men came to blows when one cut the other off on the run. A man in boxers, in an astonishing act of agility the remaining guests marveled over later, launched himself into the stairwell’s vertical drop and arrested a freefall by grabbing onto railings as he fell. That the skin was shaved from his chest and knees and palms was small price to pay for being among the first out of the burning hotel. 

Sylvia plunged into the stairwell and joined the mob pitching and shoving their way downward. Vertical tomb, said a sliver of herself that had become sheer observer. A child tripped between the fifth- and fourth-floor landings and cowered in a corner to avoid being trampled. A man—not the girl’s father, Sylvia somehow knew—slung the little girl on his hip and continued running. A crying couple shouted apologies as they hurtled down the stairs—they’d never again fight over who had to drive longer. A bald man rounding the third-floor landing, red-faced and neck tendons bulging, screamed for everyone to go, go, go. Sylvia sensed his terror tottering into violence and mentally urged the guests to run faster. On the final landing a teenage girl stumbled and grabbed Sylvia’s shoulder to right herself, and Sylvia could feel the prickled edges of sadness in her break loose from a snag. She had believed she wanted to die—until death arrived. 

And then all at once, the lobby. The lobby! Christ almighty, had she ever seen anything so exquisite, so liberating, this lobby with its regulation furniture and standard issue watercolors? A few steps more and she’d be out. 

Suddenly a voice rose above the din. “Stop!” a man shouted. “Please, everyone, stop! Everything is all right. There is no emergency.” 

Sylvia looked back to see a man waving his arms above his head. He wore an ill-fitting jacket and a nametag bearing the hotel chain’s logo. The night manager. 

“A false alarm!” he shouted. “A malfunction of the new system! We are terribly, terribly sorry…. Free doughnuts for everyone!” 

A porter hurried outside to spread the good news, and as it was a cold night the lobby quickly filled. Just as the noise from the alarm became unbearable, the night manager, who had turned to frantically punching codes on the security control panel, succeeded in overriding the system. 

In the sudden silence everyone froze. What were they to do now? Then someone began to laugh and soon others joined, a great, rolling guffaw that was three parts relief, one part sheepishness. Clapping broke out near the display of travel brochures, and then the room rang with laughter and applause. 

As the noise died down Sylvia heard many voices at once: 

“Dude, I thought we were toast.”

“Thank you, sweet Jesus, thank you.”

“Hey, no hard feelings, all right? We were all panicked.”

“Get your stuff. We’re leaving.”

“I am so tweeting this shit.”

“Let’s call the kids.”

And then whatever change in perception she’d experienced—her percipient observations, her supersonic senses—vanished, and she was just Sylvia Wendell again, wife of thirty-three years to the man who’d moved her from her sorority house into his family home, an intimidating Edwardian manse for which her parents wore their Sunday best even when George was away.

But that did not mean the wonders were done. Sylvia watched as people gathered in groups of two and three and four, some weeping, many still laughing, everyone talking as if they’d known each other for years. Two bleary-eyed mothers with startled babies found each other and collapsed on the sofa by the fireplace. A group of businessmen—she could pick them out even in their pajamas—offered a chair to a barefoot colleague; soon they were smiling and shaking their heads over their close call. The child who’d fallen in the stairwell was reunited with her sobbing parents, who drew her rescuer into an embrace. Even those texting and calling managed to do so while chatting with newfound friends. Sylvia watched it all, feeling as if she’d wandered into a stranger’s crazy family reunion. 

The night manager and porter scurried to make everyone comfortable. Chairs were commandeered from a conference room, coffee was started, and a blanket and bandages were procured for the boxered daredevil, who, now enjoying minor celebrity status, eschewed a ride to the hospital. The night manager announced that the elevators would be out of service for a while but it was safe to return to one’s room. Under most circumstances Sylvia felt sure everyone would have gone back to bed, but adrenaline still ran high, and there was an air of festivity among the guests. It was not yet time to die—why not celebrate their great good luck? 

Sylvia didn’t want coffee in the middle of the night and wasn’t hungry, but she couldn’t resist the lure of free comfort nor the idea that she was owed something for her inconvenience. Her one bit of luck was that she’d been standing near the breakfast counter when the porter arrived with a tray of glistening pastries. She was among the first in line.  

Ahead of her, a shaken elderly woman was telling a man in plaid pajamas that her husband, who used a walker, was still upstairs. She had begged in vain for help, and finally, at her husband’s insistence, fled. “I don’t understand people,” she said. “No one would stop—and then I had to… I left him!” She began to sob. Sylvia reached for her, but the man’s large hands were already there. 

“You did exactly the right thing,” he said, patting the woman’s shoulder. “You had to get help. Let’s go check on your husband.” And without warning he scooped her up and spirited her toward the stairs. “Love?” he called over his shoulder. A rumpled woman in sweats stood, acknowledged. “I’ll get the doughnuts,” she said. 

Sylvia gaped. A knight in plaid pajamas, and a damsel in distress! And how could that one word, love, communicate so much—a name, a request for doughnuts, a summons to follow? 

Sylvia selected a cinnamon roll and pushed past the rowdy line in search of a place to sit. A man in perhaps his seventies, bald as an egg but with a youthful face and bright blue eyes, caught her attention. He was seated at one of the breakfast tables, before him a stack of four chocolate-covered doughnuts. She found herself admiring, of all things, the way this man chewed. Which was vigorously, with gusto, his eyes very wide but focused on nothing. He was thin, and even seated she could tell that he was quite tall—his thighs were half again as long as hers—and dressed in tailored slacks and a navy blue t-shirt, untucked. He was sockless, with camel-colored loafers. Normally she despised the look of expensive loafers without socks—it smacked of a type of pampered man at leisure she’d grown weary of seeing—but it was three in the morning, after all. No one here could be judged by appearance, and something about this man demanded attention. For one thing he practically shimmered with energy. The muscles in his forearms twitched, as if itching to take flight. She wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see him wolf down every doughnut and then bound up the stairs to his room. He wore a thick gold wedding band but appeared to be unaccompanied, and that’s when Sylvia realized what drew her: besides herself, he was the only other person in the room who was alone. 

Suddenly he looked at her. “Do I know you?” he asked.

Sylvia flushed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to stare.”

“Not at all,” he said, and licked the chocolate from each finger, quick as a lizard. “It’s a question I have to ask so often I’m no longer embarrassed. The ol’ noodle,” he said, tapping his temple, “ain’t what it used to be.”

“Me too,” she said, and smiled.

“No, I mean clinically,” he said. “I’m on my way to Mass General. A specialist. Tests and all that.”

Was he pulling her leg? He seemed fine. “I’m sorry to hear it,” she said.

He sighed as if disappointed. “Yes, well, thank you,” he said. “But I suppose the noodle…well everything’s bound to go sooner or later. Sugar gives me a little kick-start. Plus I love the stuff. Care to sit down?”

Normally she wouldn’t dare, but the truth was she’d love to. Why couldn’t she too be adopted into this impromptu family? 

The man shoved a chair toward her with his foot, somehow managing a gallant gesture. He offered her a doughnut and although she hadn’t yet touched her cinnamon roll and wanted nothing, she accepted.

“I would introduce myself,” he said, “especially to a beautiful woman such as yourself, but my name…” He shook his head. “Well, it’s just out of reach.”

Was this some elaborate prank—or was he just plain crazy? But the look of utter solemnity on his face went a long way in convincing her. Her father had suffered from dementia before his death, and he had wafted in and out of awareness until whatever it was that bound him together snapped. She remembered his mercurial moods, how quickly he could slide from irritated to placid to enraged. In the end he did not know her at all, and was frightened most of the time.

“Where is your wife?” Sylvia asked.

“Berkshires, with her friends,” he said. “The red hats or the blue hats or the mad hatters or something, a ladies’ club. Possibly the Junior League. They have lunch. Every now and again they do a good deed or two. Eases their conscience.”

Sylvia suppressed a delighted snort. “Does she…does your wife know you’re going to the hospital?” 

He looked at her as if she were daft. “Well that’s exactly why the Berkshires trip is happening now!” he said. “She doesn’t get on with sickness. Unpleasant stuff, you know.” 

Now Sylvia did snort. “She should give my husband a call.”

The man beamed at her. “A bit squeamish, is he?”

Sylvia grinned back. “You could say George is squeamish, sure. But mostly his problem with sickness is that it interrupts his schedule. Interferes with productivity.” 

“Productivity,” the man said, “is entirely overrated.” 

“I couldn’t agree more!”

Simultaneously they lifted their paper cups and toasted.     

“All my information is in my room,” he said. “I’ve got cards with my name and address and a list of people to call. But in all the confusion I left my wallet upstairs. So we’ll just have to remain anonymous.”

“Suits me,” Sylvia said. “But listen, is there someone here I can find for you? Someone taking…is someone traveling with you? Or is there a doctor we can page?”

He shook his head vigorously. “Doctor. God, no. No. No. My wife and I have lived separate lives for a long time now, but my son… He was supposed to drive me. I’m going to tell you a secret. I took off before he could get to me! I wanted…. I wanted some…” He grimaced and waved his hand in front of his face, as if erasing a mistake from a chalkboard. 

“You wanted one last hurrah before they got to you?” Sylvia said.

“Brava, young lady, yes! My son…he’s wanted me in a home for a while now. In cahoots with his mother. You can imagine how angry he is that I escaped. I’m supposed to call him every hour, even in the middle of the night. Like a child! Never have slept well, either one of us. He’s meeting me at—at the city, the one with the hospital.”

“I see,” said Sylvia. After their conversation she’d explain the situation to the hotel staff.

“You’re not going to tell my son where I am, are you?”

She gave him a reassuring smile. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Wonderful. Because until tomorrow I mean to enjoy myself. And I am, by the way. Enjoying myself. Alarms and bad coffee and strange women and all.” 

Sylvia laughed with real pleasure. “I’m enjoying myself, too,” she said. “Immensely.”

 

It was to be a single night’s getaway—one night’s sleep in an unfamiliar bed, maybe a cocktail or two at an unremarkable bar. Standard fare for George, who traveled frequently for work, but for her a bona fide adventure. The town was mere accident—she’d exited I-84 when she started to tire—but she’d chosen the hotel deliberately. It was a middle-grade chain, not cheap enough to make her feel seedy, not lavish enough to have staff fussing over her. She wanted comfortable anonymity. She had no plan other than to be somewhere different.  

But the thrill of speeding through the dark alone took her by surprise. It was intoxicating to be the only soul on earth aware of where she was or what she was doing.

Still, she supposed it was all rather silly—she’d be back the next morning, and George would never even know she’d left. Yet she couldn’t remember the last time she’d traveled alone—dear God, had she ever? She’d been no more than a child, really, when she’d dropped out of college her freshman year to marry George. Her parents were devastated—she was the first in the family to attend college, and on a full scholarship at that—but what girl in her position wouldn’t have done the same? She’d grown up poor, with hand-me-downs and feeling less-than and too many dinners of saltines with ketchup and a life in which the answer was always no. The world was so small. Then came George, who was handsome, ambitious, rich, and completely smitten with her. She knew nothing of George’s world but she was a quick study, and from the beginning she realized that her role was to be beautiful and agreeable. She was. She grew into the model society wife and loyal companion, and there had been years of happiness. She was certainly not a woman who’d pack her husband’s bags, kiss him goodbye, and take off in the middle of the night.  

She had suspected George for the better part of a year.  That was how she expressed it to herself, when she permitted herself to think of it at all, the better part of a year.  But what an idiotic expression, in this case exactly the opposite of what it said. There were no unmistakable signs, no clichéd call from a mistress “for your own good” (which had actually happened to two of her friends), certainly no confession. She just knew. It was as if one particular day, after a steady accumulation of days, what had been gathering form subconsciously became manifestly apparent, no longer deniable.  

A similar thing was happening now. Hours earlier she had kissed George goodbye and told him with sincerity that she looked forward to his return. Now here she was far from home, among strangers. She was strange to herself. Perhaps far beneath the skin of awareness she’d been changing all along, her inner mechanisms shifting and rearranging, forging her into something new. In this way it was possible to be altogether different from one day to the next.

 

Here and there guests were returning to their rooms—the slumber party was breaking up. Sylvia declined her new companion’s offer of more doughnuts and watched in awe as he single-mindedly worked his way through another serving. She had never seen someone so intent on the act of eating, nor so transported by it. His jaw was an efficient machine, working, working, bringing pleasure. She found herself absurdly happy for him. 

When he was done he leaned back and wiped his hands, finger by finger. “The damndest thing,” he said. “Sometimes, like right now, I’m perfectly lucid….” He fell silent and Sylvia leaned in, fearing she had lost him. “Isn’t that awful?” he said. “When you have to describe yourself as ‘sometimes lucid’?” 

Sylvia smiled. “When people used to ask my father how he was doing, he’d say, ‘still vertical so far.’”  

“I’m going to use that!”  

“It’s yours,” she said.

“It’s worse when I’m tired,” he said. He peered at her. “Have you noticed any—discrepancies?”

She considered lying to him. “Maybe a couple,” she said. 

“I apologize. The late hour…”

Was he about to excuse himself for the night? “Let me refill your coffee,” she said. She took his cup and was on her feet before he could protest. 

“Decaf!” he called after her.

She was only gone a minute, but when she returned he was agitated, picking at the collar of his T-shirt. “I think I…” he said.

She placed her hand on his and left it there. He sighed.

“I have the most horrible feeling that I’m neglecting something,” he said. “Something important. But I can’t…I’m not sure what.”

“Your room key is right beside you,” she said. “You still have that.”

He studied the small plastic card and brightened. “Yes. You’re quite right.”

“Does anything hurt?”

“Hurt? Well no, why would you ask such a thing? I’m fit as a fiddle!”

He looked around the room, searching, his expression growing more distressed.

“It’s all right,” Sylvia said. “You’re at a hotel outside of Boston, and you’re safe.”

“Boston?”

“You’re on your way to a hospital there,” she said. “You have an appointment with a doctor in the morning. Your son is going to meet you.”

A small spark caught behind his eyes. “Yes. The doctor. And my son…is very angry with me.”

“He is, but he’ll get over it. He always does.”

“Do you know Alan?”

“No,” she said. “But I’m sure he’s wonderful, just like his father.”

“Oh, he’s a rotten little shit,” he said. “His mother doted on him and he never forgave her for it.”

Sylvia laughed loudly. “I find you absolutely delightful,” she said. 

“Do you have children?”

“No,” she said. “George didn’t want any.”

“And you?”

“I wanted what George wanted.”

“Past tense, I note.”

A fluttering warmth sparked in her chest and spread outward.

“Is there more sugar?” he asked.

She slid two packets across the table and he poured in both. 

“Don’t tell Ruth,” he said. 

“It’s our secret.”

“We must take our pleasure while we can,” he said. “Don’t you think?” 

“Do you know what I think?”

“Is it time to go?”

“I think your wife doesn’t know what she’s missing.”

He studied the slim plastic stir stick in his cup, still circling from his vigorous stirring.  Whether he was considering her comment or the slowly rotating stick there was no way to know.  “You must be the new girl,” he said, finally. His expression darkened. “Ruth has to stop this. What was wrong with Janessa? I like Janessa. We will not fire another aide! Do you hear me?”

Sylvia patted his hand. “Janessa’s fine,” she said. “She just wanted a night off. She’ll be waiting for you when you get home.”

“Ah, good,” he said. “Ruth finds Janessa bossy, but she’s my favorite.”

Then he looked at her intently. “I’ve been off again, haven’t I?”

Sylvia nodded. “Do you remember anything?”

“Something about Alan,” he said. “But I have no idea why I began talking about him, or where I was going. For a while it seemed like he was just a small boy—the happiest years of my life. Maybe his, too.”

“How old is he now?” Sylvia asked. 

He waved his hand in front of his face, again annoyed. “Late thirties, early forties…somewhere in there. That’s close enough for even the sound of mind.”

“You must have been quite something in your forties,” she said. 

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “And I mean I really don’t know—I can’t remember.”

But he was looking at her meaningfully, begging her to get the joke. They both laughed.

She leaned forward. “You’re quite something right now,” she said. 

She was acting outrageously, flirting with a man twenty years her senior and a very ill man at that, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. Or didn’t want to. 

“Who are you?” he said.

“I’m the new girl,” she said. “Let’s go up to your room.” 

 

In his last months, Sylvia had taken her father, long a widower by then, into her home. After her marriage to George she and her parents had drifted apart. Her mother had died only a year after the grand wedding that had so thrilled her, and over the years Sylvia and her father often went months without speaking. She made sure he was well cared for, but truth be told, in her new life of luxury and travel and freedom from worry, long spans could pass in which she didn’t even think of him. She had been so young, and so eager to leave her old life behind. But as he fell ill she insisted on taking him in. She couldn’t bear the thought of her father being cared for by people who knew nothing of his history, couldn’t bear the possibility of him dying among strangers. 

George had been against it from the start. He accused her of a last-ditch effort to absolve her guilt over “disowning” her father, and he was at least partially right. But she wouldn’t hear of putting her father in a nursing home, especially when they had plenty of room and the means to hire as much home care as needed. Besides, she pointed out, whatever her reasons, it probably wouldn’t be long. 

But he lived a full year in their guest suite, his body doggedly healthier than his mind. In his final days he suffered from a terrible dementia that erased all but the most recent events from his memory. He was stuck fast in an eternal now, with no memories to support the framework of his life, his very self. Every three or four minutes, she was newly a stranger to him. He couldn’t understand why a strange woman kept offering him ice chips or changing his soiled sheets, and hollered ceaselessly for the police.  

It was not the first time the horror of the eternal now had occurred to her. Several years prior, on a company-sponsored vacation with other top performers and their wives, Sylvia had fallen on a ski slope and broken her leg. It had taken so long, an eternity times an eternity, for the first aid team to arrive, and an even longer eternity before she could be transported to a hospital and given pain medication. The thirty-eight years she’d previously enjoyed without pain vanished instantly. There was just an eternal nownownow, an agony of now, a now of pure torment and nothing else. She’d howled like a banshee in the snow, writhed in anguish as the other wives tried to shush her, keep her still. 

It didn’t matter that at the beginning, George had been faithful and doting. Now there was only now, only George who had grown steadily distant over the years and who no longer bothered to hide his boredom and irritation with her, and increasingly, his contempt. 

The George she’d married, and the guileless girl who’d married him…it was as if they’d never existed. 

 

His room was immaculate. Sylvia noted, with astonishment, that the bed was made. Either this man had never been to sleep, or he had taken the time to tidy his bed while the alarms howled around him. A large daily pill dispenser lay on the desk. The morning and nighttime doses were gone, the mid-day’s, full. 

“How are you feeling?” she asked.

He smiled apologetically. “I’m very tired.”

“We’ll sleep soon,” she said.

A cell phone chirruped and vibrated on the floor, a hideous plastic beetle skittering in increments across the stained carpet. 

“We’ll let it go to voice mail,” she said. 

She helped him take off his shoes and settle on the bed, two pillows behind his back. She joined him, and held his hand.

“It’s—whose house is this?” he said.

“You’re on a trip,” she said, “and you’re safe with me.”

“The new girl.” His eyes closed for a moment, then snapped to alertness. “Janessa is a real firecracker. She’ll show you the ropes.”

She squeezed his hand and spoke into his ear. “I’m not the new girl,” she said. “My name is Sylvia.”

The phone rang again and continued its creep across the floor. 

He winced. “Such a racket.” 

“I’ll turn it off.”

“No,” he said, “don’t leave me.”

She slid her arm around him. “Listen,” she said, “listen. Would you like me to spend the night?”  

“The phone—can you tell Petrevzky I’m not in?” 

“Of course,” Sylvia said. 

“I’ll be Chairman within two years,” he said, “and then Petrevzky won’t matter one jot.” Doubt creased his face. “I’m not sure I recall the way of it. Well, I’ll be done by lunch, and then we can take a walk.”

Sylvia rested her head on his chest and reached under his T-shirt to glide her hand up and down his side. “I’ve been so stupid,” she said. “Willfully stupid.”

“No,” he said. “No. Such an ugly word.”

“But true,” she said. “I see now that it’s been so much longer than one year. I’ll never know how many.”

“Years feel like days,” he said. “Days feel like—nothing.”

She held him with both arms. How long had it been since anyone other than a masseuse or hairdresser or esthetician had touched her? A paid employee?

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I’ve never done anything on my own.” 

“Smart woman like you?” he said. “You could do anything you want.” Abruptly he sat up. “Where is Ruth?” he asked. 

“She’s running errands,” Sylvia said. “You have nothing to worry about. You’re safe with me.”

“Safe,” he said, and settled back on the pillows.

She reached up and caressed his face. His skin was surprisingly smooth and firm. She kissed his cheek, the corner of his mouth. “Do you want me to stay?” she asked. 

“Stay,” he said, but it was merely an echo.

“Please tell me you want me to stay,” she said.

Again the phone rang and crept. She’d assumed its location on the floor was the one clue in this orderly room to its occupant’s troubled mind, but now she realized that it had vibrated itself off of the desk. It had been ringing for hours. It was his son, it was Alan, worried sick.

“Please,” she said. “Please. Tell me you want me to stay.”

He looked at her without an ounce of recognition. She saw fear crimping the corners of his eyes, his mouth. In another minute he’d panic. After her father had stopped calling for the police—in the end he had forgotten even how to speak—he’d shrieked like a wounded animal, an unimaginable sound. 

She drew back. 

“Shhh,” she said. “It’s all right. Shhh.”

“Where is Ruth?”

“It’s all right. There is no emergency. It was a false alarm.”

“False alarm?”

“Yes. They’ve fixed the problem. You’re safe. All you need to do is rest.”

“Rest,” he said. “I’m so tired.”

Again the phone rang. Soon she would answer it and tell Alan that everything was all right, that she would drive his father to Mass General herself, would personally ensure his safety until father and son could be reunited. 

But not quite yet.

“I’m not going home,” she said.

She got him settled under the covers—he was asleep before she could return to her side of the bed—and joined him, tucking herself into the crook of his body spoon-style. She pulled his long arm around her body and laced her fingers through his, and then reached over and turned off the light. The new day was just hours away, and she was driving to Boston. 

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