We go along the corridor and through another flat grey door and along another corridor, softly lit and carpeted this time, in a mushroom colour, browny-pink. Doors open off it, with numbers on them: a hundred and one, a hundred and two, the way you count during a thunderstorm, to see how close you are to being struck. It’s a hotel then. From behind one of the doors comes laughter, a man’s and also a woman’s. It’s a long time since I’ve heard that.
We emerge into a central courtyard. It’s wide and also high: it goes up several storeys to a skylight at the top. There’s a fountain in the middle of it, a round fountain spraying water in the shape of a dandelion gone to seed. Potted plants and trees sprout here and there, vines hang down from the balconies. Oval-sided glass elevators slide up and down the walls like giant molluscs.
I know where I am. I’ve been here before: with Luke, in the afternoons, a long time ago. It was a hotel, then. Now it’s full of women.
I stand still and stare at them. I can stare, here, look around me, there are no white wings to keep me from it. My head, shorn of them, feels curiously light; as if a weight has been removed from it, or substance.
The women are sitting, lounging, strolling, leaning against one another. There are men mingled with them, a lot of men, but in their dark uniforms or suits, so similar to one another, they form only a kind of background. The women on the other hand are tropical, they are dressed in all kinds of bright festive gear. Some of them have on outfits like mine, feathers and glister, cut high up the thighs, low over the breasts. Some are in olden-days lingerie, shortie nightgowns, baby-doll pyjamas, the occasional see-through negligee. Some are in bathing suits, one-piece or bikini; one, I see, is wearing a crocheted affair, with big scallop shells covering the tits. Some are in jogging shorts and sun halters, some in exercise costumes like the ones they used to show on television, body-tight, with knitted pastel leg warmers. There are even a few in cheerleaders’ outfits, little pleated skirts, outsized letters across the chest. I guess they’ve had to fall back on a mélange, whatever they could scrounge or salvage. All wear makeup, and I realize how unaccustomed I’ve become to seeing it, on women, because their eyes look too big to me, too dark and shimmering, their mouths too red, too wet, blood-dipped and glistening; or, on the other hand, too clownish.
At first glance there’s a cheerfulness to this scene. It’s like a masquerade party; they are like oversized children, dressed up in togs they’ve rummaged from trunks. Is there joy in this? There could be, but have they chosen it? You can’t tell by looking.
There are a great many buttocks in this room. I am no longer used to them.
“It’s like walking into the past,” says the Commander. His voice sounds pleased, delighted even. “Don’t you think?”
I try to remember if the past was exactly like this. I’m not sure, now. I know it contained these things, but somehow the mix is different. A movie about the past is not the same as the past.
“Yes,” I say. What I feel is not one simple thing. Certainly I am not dismayed by these women, not shocked by them. I recognize them as truants. The official creed denies them, denies their very existence, yet here they are. That is at least something.
“Don’t gawk,” says the Commander. “You’ll give yourself away. Just act natural.” Again he leads me forward. Another man has spotted him, has greeted him and set himself in motion towards us. The Commander’s grip tightens on my upper arm. “Steady,” he whispers. “Don’t lose your nerve.”
All you have to do, I tell myself, is keep your mouth shut and look stupid. It shouldn’t be that hard.
The Commander does the talking for me, to this man and to the others who follow him. He doesn’t say much about me, he doesn’t need to. He says I’m new, and they look at me and dismiss me and confer together about other things. My disguise performs its function.
He retains hold of my arm, and as he talks his spine straightens imperceptibly, his chest expands, his voice assumes more and more the sprightliness and jocularity of youth. It occurs to me he is showing off. He is
showing me off, to them, and they understand that, they are decorous enough, they keep their hands to themselves, but they review my breasts, my legs, as if there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. But also he is showing off to me. He is demonstrating, to me, his mastery of the world. He’s breaking the rules, under their noses, thumbing his nose at them, getting away with it. Perhaps he’s reached that state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything, absolutely anything you feel like, anything at all. Twice, when he thinks no one is looking, he winks at me.
It’s a juvenile display, the whole act, and pathetic; but it’s something I understand.
When he’s done enough of this he leads me away again, to a puffy flowered sofa of the kind they once had in hotel lobbies; in this lobby, in fact, it’s a floral design I remember, dark blue background, pink art nouveau flowers. “I thought your feet might be getting tired,” he says, “in those shoes.” He’s right about that, and I’m grateful. He sits me down, and sits himself down beside me. He puts an arm around my shoulders. The fabric of his sleeve is raspy against my skin, so unaccustomed lately to being touched.
“Well?” he says. “What do you think of our little club?”
I look around me again. The men are not homogeneous, as I first thought. Over by the fountain there’s a group of Japanese, in lightish-grey suits, and in the far corner there’s a splash of white: Arabs, in those long bathrobes they wear, the headgear, the striped sweatbands.