Alix Strauss
Based Upon Availability

Based Upon Availability


This excerpt first appeared in Heeb’s critically acclaimed Storytelling series online, and will be included in her forthcoming novel, Based Upon Availability (Harper Collins, June 8th 2010)

Morgan. Chapter 1: The Hotel Lobby Lounge

I watch the ladies parade into the bar of the Four Seasons hotel. They look like a pack of tourists following a guide, who, unfortunately, in this instance, is my mother, Rose Tierney.

“Morgan, we’re here!” Acting as if she’s Norma Desmond descending the staircase, my mother signals to me from across the room. She’s both breathtaking and distancing. A-list in the looks department, Wicked Witch in the nurturing arena. I want to run to her, open-armed, ready for her embrace, and I want to run away as reality sets in that she will never be the person I hoped she’d become.

I smile like a good daughter and fall, rather slip, easily into the role I’m expected to play. I excel at this. My whole family does. By 34, I had assumed a curtain would have dropped, followed by several adoring minutes of applause, and an award would have arrived on my doorstep: Best Acting in a Family Drama. But it didn’t, and the ovation hasn’t started, and from what I can tell, intermission isn’t coming for years.

I’m accosted by the smell of several flowery and sweet fragrances making me think I’ve entered a stale perfumery. I glance at my mother’s friends, their faces already embroidered in memory. They’re as familiar to me as the conversations that take place in the hotel’s lounge every Wednesday after they’ve played bridge at the club next door. Somehow the Four Seasons has become a halfway house for wayward Upper East Siders.

Usually I can find a way to escape, a reason to be M.I.A. It’s a large hotel with over 368 rooms. I could be anywhere: in a budget meeting, speaking with housekeeping, planning a corporate event, showing a room, dealing with a celebrity in crisis... the list of excuses for a general manager of a hotel is endless. But today I’ve been caught. Today I’ve been inducted, or abducted, into my mother’s ritual tea hour.

It takes several minutes for them to settle in. Shopping bags are stacked noisily on the unoccupied banquette, recently completed bridge score cards are removed from pockets and purses, fur coats, hats and wool scarves are draped over the backs of the mahogany chairs. The sound of the wooden legs scraping against marble floor, the snap of white cloth napkins, of water being poured into glasses, of bangle bracelets clinking and scratching against the fine china plates all seem to converge. It’s a musical ballet, rhythmic and smooth. Dramatic and entertaining. The only way to tell my mother’s friends apart is by their drink order; White or Red Wine, Cosmo, Martini, Gin & Tonic.

“The food is good here,” White Wine says

“Yes, the food is good here,” agrees Martini.

“Marvelous,” announces Cosmo.

“I just love it,” my mother contributes, winking at me before taking a swig of watered-down scotch. “And having a child who runs the show doesn’t hurt either.”

“I tell Robert he can’t take me anywhere else for my birthday, it’s always here.”

“I know,” says Red Wine, slapping the top of the table. “I love high tea. It’s absolutely charming.”

“Best in New York.”

“And there’s so much food.”

I watch them eye the traditional three-tier holders. Two have been set in the middle of the table, each filled with warm berry scones and mini lemon poppy seed muffins, egg, tuna and cucumber finger sandwiches, quarter-sized salmon and cream cheese on toasted brioche, cookies and coconut macaroons. They reach for the snacks, rings on appropriate fingers, a rainbow of nail colors flash. What the hell am I doing here?

“I wouldn’t dare eat this by myself,” continues Gin & Tonic.

“Nor I.”

It’s bad Mamet no matter how you look at it.

“You know, honey,” my mother says, leaning forward, her hand shooting towards my head, “You could really use a shaping. And perhaps some fresh highlights. You’re looking a tad dull.”

As I attempt to dodge the oncoming fingers, they somehow arrive at my ear and push thick, blondish-brown strands of hair behind it. My quick head jerk surprises her and I can’t tell if she’s embarrassed or hurt. She pulls her hand back, and as she does, her ring gets caught. There’s a slight tug, the momentary throb of pain, the holding still while she tries to untangle her wedding band. White Wine and Cosmo attempt to help, but only make things worse.

If I don’t break free, if I don’t get myself out of here, I swear to God my head will explode.

A sharp yank releases both of us, and I excuse myself from the table stating I need to check tonight’s reservations, the New York Times food editor is supposed to be having dinner here. This causes a collective "Ohhhh" from the group, which fades as I head deeper into the restaurant and push through the swinging doors that open into the kitchen. Moist heat hits me like a humid, summer day. The banging of pots, the steam from the scorching water and the wet heat from the dishwashers is overwhelming. The chef is yelling while slamming down a bowl. There’s the clanking of plates and glassware. Everything sounds extra loud, and the light, ultra blinding as the bustling culinary area moves to its own rhythm.

My eyes eventually rest on Renaldo, the busboy. He’s cute and young and innocent, and he likes me. I know this because he blushes whenever I’m around and always asks if I’d like a muffin or coffee or one of the freshly squeezed juices when I pick up my morning paper and fruit cup.

I slide up to him, whisper into his ear that I need help reaching a jar of jam kept in the dry pantry. Would he lift it down? I pull him by his untied apron, the universal sign for the end of a shift, and lead him into the back room where the economy bottles of condiments and baking ingredients are stored.

He flips on the light and walks directly to the oversized bottle of raspberry preserves. The room is small but well organized. Large plastic containers, bottles, and packages of spices are stacked high on a shelf above a sink and cutting table. On the opposite side are racks and racks of cooking paraphernalia; soy sauce, salad dressings, oil and vinegar. Cans of teas and jams. On the floor are the super-size boxes of flour, sugar, rice and wheat.

He’s in mid-reach when I shut the door behind me. He spins around, smiles sheepishly. His skin is tan, his face smooth. His lips look soft, eyelashes full. His cropped black hair has too much gel in it, giving off a bristled appearance. I dim the light to just a bare hue, his face almost glows. I glide over to him, lean in close and rest a hand on his right shoulder blade. It feels strong and narrow and I wonder what’s going through his mind at this very minute as I do something I’ve never done before. I don’t have one-night stands. I don’t have inter-hotel relationships. I slide my hand down until I reach the belt loops of his pants, place myself up against the cutting board and kiss him. He tastes salty and smells of olive oil and sweat and a hint of Old Spice, which remind me of the commercial with the kid and the father who’s dressed in a blue turtleneck at Christmas time. A wife and golden retriever are at his side, a sailboat is in the background and everyone seems enormously happy in a fake sort of way.

At first, Renaldo doesn’t return the kiss. He is uncomfortably quiet. Seems frozen and confused, and I must lead him though this, find a place to put his hands on my body.

“It’s okay. I want to do this,” I whisper into his ear, breathy and warm, like on TV, like in a porn video.

His light brown skin is darker in here, and I can barely make out his facial features. I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I undo my belt, unbutton my slacks, search for his small, callused hands and place them on my hips, help him feel in the dark for my underwear. I reach for his belt and remember he isn’t wearing one. Instead I undo his pants, push them down, hear them drop to the floor, feel the elastic band of his briefs, no, boxers. Renaldo’s fingers are lingering at my waist. They seem lost in the lacy fabric and I shove his hands away and take off my underwear for him. Frustration is building inside my chest, like a balloon receiving air, the inner pressure pushing on my ribs.

“Please, it’s fine. Really.”

There’s an uncomfortable stillness, followed by the breathing through nostrils. Then something takes over inside him, male hormones, the understanding that this is actually happening settles in, and he becomes all man. He hurriedly undoes my shirt, pulling at the buttons and lifting it up over my head. Then he reaches for my breasts, cups his hands over my bra while brushing his face up against mine.

“Yes,” I think. “Keep going,” I mentally encourage him. I grasp his face, hold his chin, feel for his cheeks and lips to see if he is smiling. He twists his face to the left and kisses my hand on the palm side. His lips are moist and soft, like wet cotton. He is so gentle, so kindly I want to cry.

His body is narrow and slight and it almost feels as if I’m fucking a child. “I swear,” I murmur into his ear, “I will never be one of them.” He pauses for a moment, tightens his grasp and brings me close to his body. I would rather spend a lifetime alone than become one of those ladies at the table having tea and wearing rings and spending their husband’s money.

When I return to the table, my damp face has been patted dry, hair restyled, make-up reapplied.

“Morgan, what took so long?” my mother asks.

Sweat is running down my back. I’m slightly winded and a little disoriented. I can feel my face contort into a smug smile. As hard as I try, I can’t remove the grin, and I must restrain myself from leaping onto the table shouting, I just fucked the busboy. I fucked the busboy while you all sat on your asses and ate.

I take my seat. “I was following up on some reservations. We have a divisions dinner next week...”

“There must be a lot of them, you were gone for 20 minutes.”

“Was I?” I say, head tilted to one side, an innocent expression on my face. “There was small crisis in the kitchen.” I reach for a salmon tea sandwich and a raspberry scone.

My mother turns to Cosmo and Martini, “Who would have thought,” she beams.

“And the Four Seasons is such an established hotel,” adds White Wine.

“I don’t know how you kids do it,” says Cosmo.

My mother extends her hand from across the table, rests it on mine. This time I stay still, remind myself not to pull away. “She’s the youngest the hotel has ever had. Such responsibility.”

“Not too shabby,” Martini adds.

The women nod, their recently Botoxed eyebrows not arching, their collagen lips full and pressed into a closed smile.

“I barely see Lindsay. Miramax works her like a dog,” states Gin & Tonic. “You really have no idea. And James stays at the office sometimes till 10 or 11 at night, can you imagine?”

I look at my watch. This is good for another 5 to 8 minutes of work stories. I bet my mother is wishing she had more children so she’d have something else to contribute to the conversation and I calculate in my head how long it will take for people to remember my sister. How long until they switch subjects.

It only takes a few minutes for the acknowledgment to happen, for memory to register. Red Wine shoots a look to Cosmo who, in turn, nudges Martini who is quick to add, “Anyway, it’s really wonderful. Your mother is so very proud.”

Everyone nods as a check is placed close to me. My mother starts to reach for the leather billfold but I arrive at it first. “I got it, mom.”

“Nonsense,” the women say at once.

“Really, ladies. Please. My hotel, my pleasure.”

“You’ll be able to write it off?” Cosmo asks.

“Yes, we don’t want you paying for it,” White Wine adds. And with that, an outpour of wallets surface; LV and Prada and Gucci all make an appearance, their accoutrements as signature as their liquor choices. But I’m already up, the bill in my hand, a smirk on my face. “Really, I’m happy to do it.”

My mother is radiant. Now they won’t pity her. Sure one of her daughters is dead, but the living one has clearly made up for the loss.


Finally free from my mother and her bridge friends I swing by the front desk.

The turnover in the hotel is tremendous. According to our computers, every three minutes and 49 seconds someone is either checking in or out. There are three small boxes responsible for giving room assignments and security codes to the key cards. Upon checking out, the information is erased and a new number and code is given.

I close my eyes, run my fingers over the duplicate guest’s keys. Like a deck of cards waiting to be fanned out by a magician, I remove one and stick it in the box. 1709 lights up in green. In the four years I’ve worked here, I’ve never gotten this room, until today. I’ve been in 70 percent of the quarters, and am as familiar with each line as I am with my own apartment. I know which has the best layout, the grandest view, the largest bathroom, the nicest closets. That the corner rooms are 25 square feet larger then the regular ones. That the water pressure in suite 2510 will never be as powerful as the others, no matter how many times we try to fix it. That Star Jones will only stay in the Presidential Suite and that the housekeeping once found a wad of cum on the wall in room 615.

I take the elevator up with an attractive Japanese couple who are decked out in Gucci. I bow my head as I exit, then utter goodbye in Japanese. They smile politely, return the bow as the closing doors disconnect us.

The floor is quiet, deserted. Not surprising since 11:40 a.m. isn’t a heavily trafficked time. Three or four hours earlier and the hallway was active with men in crisp white shirts and expensive ties, newspapers tucked under their arms, cell phones already attached to their ears. The women dress in smart pant suits or good-girl skirts and pull boxy, black suitcases on wheels. Then there are the young, pretty girls who wear jeans and v-neck sweaters. Sunglasses hide their faces, baseball hats cover their heads, underwear is tucked in a pocket of their coats or hidden safely away in their Prada handbags. Those that want to sleep-in never can because the slamming of doors pulled harshly by the fire-friendly hinges is endless. But now no one is stirring, not even a mouse.

I knock on the door and wait for an answer. When another knock produces no response I slide my passkey easily, professionally, into the opening. I announce myself, hand on the door, body half in, half still in the hall. “Housekeeping,” I say.

Nothing.

I glide in and stand in the entranceway. I take a deep breath, momentarily forgetting the trouble I had a few hours ago, close my eyes, tilt my head slightly to the right and catch the light aroma of... lily. A woman is staying here. The fragrance is mature, yet fresh.

I scan the area. Some people leave their room in a disgraceful mess. Liquor bottles and half-eaten $8 candy bars or potato chip bags sit open, haphazardly placed wherever the guest felt like leaving them. Some abandon empty soda cans overnight so that the sticky rims have left marks on the leather blotters or glass tables. Leftovers from dinner reside on the floor by the door, uncovered and picked over. Towels are discarded on the bathroom tile or tossed carelessly on the beds, the wetness seeping through the sheets. Not this woman. Though housekeeping hasn’t been here yet, you can tell by the way she’s left the room that she’s respectfully tidy. Even her shopping bags from Bergdorf, Dior and Ferragamo are stacked neatly on the chair by the couch.

In the closet closest to the door is a stylish duffel bag, which is free of flight check-in tickets or stickers. It’s too large to fit under the seat of an airplane, but small enough to carry without struggling, and would fit comfortably on a train or in the back of a car.

I check the mini refrigerator and bar to see what’s been consumed. Everything is untouched. I don’t need to look at the price card, and like a game show contestant on an up-scale version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Unhappy, can announce the cost of each child-sized item. I close the bar door and inspect the desk area. The leather bound directory, blot board, notepad, stationary, in-room service listing and menu all seem undisturbed.

I enter the bedroom, noticing that the pillows have been aligned and placed up against the headboard, the comforter and sheet pulled up and smoothed out.

The bathroom is clean, used towels folded neatly over the tub. On the vanity table sit three small LV bags. The first is filled with enough Chanel makeup to impress the sales people at Bloomingdale’s. I apply some blush, Warm Mocha, with the enclosed brush then spray some of her Jessica McClintock perfume on my wrist.

Another bag holds a set of Chanel travel-size bottles: toner, face cleanser, eye cream, moisturizer and anti-aging serum. I save the best part for last. The third bag is filled with personal items, toothbrush, tooth-paste, eye drops, and bottle of pills. I love the sight of a punched out V or K. A few small tablets of lavender or yellow or white pills—mood enhances, elevators and downers, pain killers and relaxants—all in similar, small, see-though rusty colored plastic bottles with white tops. Valley of the Dolls anyone? I read the recommended dose, then see if I know the name of the doctor or patient. Her medication selection is disappointing. There’s only one type of pill inside, and the bottle of Xanax belongs to Ben Theron. Her husband? Lover? I reach for a glass, fill it with water, wash down one of Mr. Theron’s pills, which I’m hoping will help my little breathing problem, wipe the glass clean, and replace it in its original spot.

When I get the room cards I never glance at the computer, let alone the guest’s profile that automatically pops up on the screen when the room key is activated. I like to do this without help. I tally up the information: Chanel products are too mature for most women in their 30s. The shopping bags are from sophisticated, high-end neighborhood stores. The clothing has a mature feel, too. On the nightstand is this month’s Town & Country and Vogue along with a Discman and several CDs. Anyone in their 20s or 30s would own an iPod or MP3 player. People who bring their own music selections are usually seasoned travelers who spend more time in hotels, airports and train stations than at the office. There’s no laptop or palm charger, so this might be a pleasure trip. She didn’t fly here, and she’s too chic and product oriented to live in a small rural place, so my guess is she lives in a large urban city like DC or Boston.

I open another closet, several pairs of pants hang motionless next to a navy jacket. The first dresser drawer has a sweatshirt and matching pants, control top underwear and T-shirts. The next drawer reveals three silk shirts. I touch the cream colored one, then remove it from its resting spot. It smells like her perfume. I twirl in front of the mirror, the silk shirt held up to my chest, until I feel dizzy. I fall back onto on the bed, her shirt draped over me like a shadow.

I close my eyes and listen: to the buzz of the florescent light above me, the low murmur from the TV escaping from the next room, the hum of the refrigerator, the annoying ticking of the clock on the desk, the distant zooming noise from the cars outside, the deep, hollow sound of my breathing as I wait for the Xanax to take effect. I allow myself one more moment: if I don’t will myself up, I just might fall asleep.