I wrote this story over a year ago and tried to find a home for it among the many literary journals. Time passed and I forgot about it until yesterday. Now I’m just sharing it. Would love your feedback.
“Just one?” asks the young woman at the front desk?
“Yes, just me,” I say. The response is ritual. Dinner by yourself? Yes, just me. One ticket for the concert? Yes, just me. Will anyone be joining you for a drink? Just me.
She hands me a metal key. “Welcome to Villa Augustus.” She smiles. “My name is Sophie. If you need anything else, please call. The restaurant is open for another thirty minutes so you may have to explore if you’re hungry.”
“Thanks, I’ll be back down for recommendations.”
I climb the spiral staircase inside the refurbished water tower. It feels like I’m ascending the inside of a giant, magical, tin canister, like the world has disappeared and I’ve woken in a JRR Tolkien scene. Soft, white Christmas lights line the narrow stairs. It’s hard to tell if they are always here or if they’ve been hung for the season. On the fourth floor, I step through an iron door and into my room. The walls and ceiling dip and rise. Metal lights and simple, wooden furniture and hardwood floors and a large bed invite me to stay as family, as the single uncle home for the holidays. Why such large beds when hotels know so many of their guests travel alone during the week? Why not simply a twin mattress? Or do hotels know that single travelers often share the bed? I yearn for the conversation more than the flesh.
I unpack my suitcase and hang the rolled pants and shirts in the closet. Dressing out of a closet says you’re here to live, even if just for a short while. Thirty minutes have passed. The restaurant is surely closed. Out the window, a low, dense fog covers much of the road. I head out and into the heart of Dordrecht.
The fog darkens the air, making it difficult to know the time. I follow the rough pavement out from the hotel, over a stone bridge, and into town. Two-story brick and stone homes line the cobblestone roads. Canals and their house boats line other roads. The muted halo of street-lamps lead the way… somewhere.
I can’t see beyond a full block. I hear no footsteps, no distant laughter, no garbled arguments. Once again, I’m alone. A stranger in a romantic town forced to walk alone. Eat dinner alone. Nothing appears open. Sophie promised recommendations, but she’d already left for the night, probably sitting in a pub somewhere giggling at a young man’s silly joke.
The fog absorbs me. So far there are no restaurants or bars or random McDonald’s. Small apartments and shops line each street – a bike shop, a children’s clothing store, and a stationary store. They share the same brick and Tudor facade. These shops are alive during the day, locals trickle in, say good morning, shake hands, chatter about the last day’s events, and purchase small, wanting to spend their money in spurts and see their neighbors again.
I’m lost and hungry. Walking quickly, I point my nose upward and hope to catch a whiff of a deep fryer, the scent let off by pubs as they prepare patrons’ meals. I listen for the low hum of a crowd piled into a cafe. Nothing.
I walk. Maybe in circles? It’s impossible to know. I stop. Sound radiates in front of me. It’s not conversation or the clinking of forks on plates. It’s singing. Boisterous caroling. Oh Christmas Tree cuts through the fog. I follow the curious joy until I’m standing in front of a large, steamy, rectangular window. Figures move back and forth inside. Laughter bellows. Jingle Bells. My lips join in and move without thought.
What is this place?
“Excuse me, sir,” says an older man. He stands behind me smiling through his buttoned-up trench coat.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I thought it was a place to eat dinner.”
“Oh, a visitor. It is a place to eat. And drink. Come in, come in.” He opens the door. Warmth from the fire and the joy and the love jump on me. “You won’t need the coat in here,” he says. “I’m Liam,” he says.
“Romeo,” I say.
People fill the front living room, sitting leg-over-leg on the sofa and draped across laps on a love seat. Narrow tables, covered with casserole dishes, line the side wall. The Christmas tree stands tall in the middle of the room. Small groups chat. Everyone sings. The room is warm.
“Drink, drink,” says Liam. He hands me a small glass filled with a rich, red wine. “Holiday cheer in a cup,” he says. “Come get food.” I follow him to the tables. “Let me know if you don’t know what something is,” he says. He moves ahead and fills his plate to the brim. He smiles at me and then disappears into the crowd, but I hear his voice chatting with someone. I fill my plate and find an empty, wooden chair in the corner. The group sings White Christmas and laughs. They hug and kiss and pat backs. I sit in my chair. I am almost full.
“I see you’ve found a better food option.” Sophie stands in front of me. Her eyes twinkle with the Christmas lights on the tree. She pulls up a chair and sits next to me and we clink our glasses. “To Christmas,” she says. We talk until the crowd thins and the singing slows.
We leave. Our shoulders brush together as we step onto the foggy sidewalk. We walk and talk, repeating sometimes to translate better. We stand in front of Villa Augustus and talk a bit more and then go inside. The elevator ride is quiet. The night unwinds. My clothes peel off easily and I flop onto the large bed and spread out. I close my eyes. I’m alone. I’m full.