Her body was a golden string, hanging upon the last thread. Eyes sunken and sallow, nothing of the old glory left. Black shadows hid in the ruins of her face where there used to be rosy cheeks and dust and debris settled on her head as if she was a statue of herself, a copy not quite good enough to imitate the beauty that once hid in her features.
She was used to travelling, by now at least. She was used to the strange beds, the weary motel clerks with bleary two a.m. eyes. She was used to the smell of strangers but had forgotten her own. She hadn’t been herself in a while.
In another life, she wondered, would she have been happier? Was it the circumstances that led her to this place of longing, or was it herself, the unchangeable path that her feet would have followed, anyway, anywhere, no matter whether she’d been born an Indian peasant of the lowest caste or a Parisian Grand-Dame of noble descent? She knew that there was no point in dwelling on these things, no point in giving them room to grow and change and ensnare her mind like ivy poison until she felt drunk on her own tears and sedated by her own wistfulness.
Yet still, one day a year, she allowed herself to delve into this sadness of hers, to completely disintegrate into her own misery and today was that day. It was never the same day, there was no special occasion that prompted it, no ‘worst memory’ connected with it, nothing uncontrolled and spiralling. It was just a strategy for survival; the knowledge that there was a day in her year where she could be completely honest with herself.
The motel for this night was just like any other, her room never quite dark because the cheap green curtains were too thin to keep out the neon light glaring from the blinking “vacancy” sign. She heard a dog bark, hushed voices in the room next to hers, the chirping of the cicadas outside. She smelled the taste of stale beer, the stench of green waste rotting in a pile on the grass not too far from her room. It was the worst time of day, still faintly light outside, a pink strip of sky visible if she’d stepped outside, and the world around her seemed to get more quiet, and the rush of the day seemed to die down, and the people usually crowding public spaces would go home and the streets would get empty, while she didn’t know where home was.
“’scuse me.” A knock on the door. Her heart leaped. Experience had taught her that strange men’s voices at a door at dusk never meant anything good, so she froze just as she was, curled up on the holey blanket on her bed.
“Miss, ‘scuse me,” the man repeated and knocked on her door again.
“Go away,” she said.
“It’s me, Mart from the reception desk. Someone dropped something off for you but I haven’t seen you all day to hand it over.”
“I don’t want it,” she said.
Mart from the reception desk seemed quite unsure what to do next and decided it would be best to leave the parcel on the mat in front of her door. She heard his retracing steps and sighed, glad that he was gone and she could continue to be miserable on her own. But as much as she tried not to, her thoughts began to spiral away from her unhappiness and towards the parcel that someone had wanted her to get. Who could have wanted to give her something? Who could know where she was? What could it be? And a little drop of curiosity fell into her well of sadness. And she thought about it some more, and next to curiosity, there came excitement. Why would someone want to give her something? And with a sudden surge of energy, she got off her bed in the half-dark of her room, ignoring the long shadows on the wall. She leaped to the door to chase down after Mart, lest that he had thrown the ‘something’ away because she said she didn’t want it. But before she could step out of the door, she saw it there on the mat in front of her; a small parcel wrapped in brown paper. Inside there was a key fob shaped like the state of Missouri that she could clearly remember on display in the little motel-shop next to the reception desk. She laughed. Quiet at first and then louder, until tears of laughter were streaming down her face.
“Why did you give me this?” she asked Mart the next morning when she came to his desk for check-out, holding up the keyring.
“Dunno,” he said and shrugged, “you just seemed kind of sad to me.”
She suppressed a laugh. “Appreciate it. See you around.”
“See ya,” Mart said and gave her a little wave while she drove away.