The clerk at the front desk of the hotel handed Ash a welcome package with brochures and a sample of sweets from a local candy shop. She held it aloft as she managed an overnight bag and a laptop case, tired from a long drive that morning and a full day of sitting in conference sessions.
She didn’t travel much for work, but when she did, it took her to what she and her husband had dubbed the B-list cities. Cities you wouldn’t plan to visit on purpose, but that if someone else paid for you to be there you might find something to like about them. Indianapolis. Minneapolis. Columbus. Virginia Beach.
The current locale couldn’t have been a C-list or even a D-list place. 40 miles from anywhere worthwhile. The hotel had the name of a lake in it, but Ash hadn’t see any water from the exterior of the grounds. When she reached the fourth floor, she expected a view of it off in the distance, but instead her room looked out on the parking lot toward her SUV and the other suburban cars of tourist and conference attendees.
The hot weather had risen from street level and pooled in her top-floor room. She stripped off a blazer and a blouse, slipped out of brown slacks, and tossed the clothes onto the bed furthest from the window. She turned on the air conditioner and flopped onto the bed in her underwear and camisole, a throttle of cool air emitting from the unit on the wall.
When she was younger, she would have done the same thing, abandoned a bag just inside the doorway and thrown her body stomach down onto a comforter. But back then, a companion would have followed, his hand on the curve of her ass, toying with the hem of a dress, before pulling her back toward the edge of the bed. This bed would have been the right height for that, if she weren’t alone, if she weren’t approaching middle age, if anyone still wanted her in that desperate, urgent way.
Ash closed her eyes and breathed in the stiff scent of the white sheets. If she stayed still, she could fall asleep. But instead she put on a fresh shirt and skirt, then headed out to the networking thing at a wine bar two blocks up.
She asked for a glass of pinot grigio and stood off to the side. Close enough to smile across the room at people as they came in, but far off enough they wouldn’t make the trek away from the center of the room to talk. She finished the drink and moved to place the empty glass on the edge of the bar, when a man approached. She’d seem him earlier, two tables away, at the conference. One of those comm guys with the slick hair and the slim fit pants. Too polished, too pretty. She wondered if he might be a salesman. They always found her at these things and thought she was an easy mark, her soft smile and long hair a disguise for her skeptic’s heart.
“Ashley, right?” the guy said. He held out the lanyard that displayed his name. Darren.
“Hi,” she said, and took a step toward the bar. Not encouraging, still skeptical.
“Want another drink?” he asked and held a glass of white out to her. “I was hoping you’d be here tonight. I recognized you at breakfast.”
“Recognized me?” she said, trying to place him.
“You worked for the paper in San Benito, right? Crime reporter?”
“I wasn’t a crime reporter, but I did work there for a while.”
“My hometown. Read your investigative piece on that homicide in 2007 when I was a high school senior. Inspired me to get into the news biz.”
At this, she let out a sharp laugh. “How’s that going for you?”
“I mean, we’re both here at this government comm conference so I think you know.”
The investigative piece had earned her an award, the first of many. Her current job didn’t offer bylines or accolades.
She looked at the man now, with his shaped eyebrows and sharp cheekbones, no wrinkles on his smooth face. She put him at a decade younger than her, at least. The kind of beautiful boy she would have fallen for and never talked to in her 20s.
He touched her arm as she finished off the second glass. The buzz from the alcohol and his light brush spread a flush across her chest and face. She relaxed into the conversation. His movements mirrored hers, lifting a glass to his lips when she did, hand in his hair as she pushed her bangs aside. After most of the other conference attendees had left for dinner, Darren put his hand on the small of her back.
“Walk you to the hotel?”
She gave one nod.
They waited for the elevator and entered it alone.
“What floor are you on?” she asked, as she reached for the silver buttons.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, and pushed her back into the wall of the elevator, his lips hard against hers as she fingered the 4 button.
In the room, she didn’t pause. She didn’t hesitate. The stranger with the perfect eyebrows undressed her and pulled her to the edge of the bed. And after they finished, Darren prattled on about journalism and awards she’d won as she drifted off to sleep.
Ash woke alone in the morning, showered and began to repack her overnight kit. She picked up the bag with the brochure into which Darren had slipped a business card. Ash lifted the small box of candy out of the bag, some kind of peanut brittle and caramel chews, and dropped the sweets into her purse. She’d give them to her husband and kid when she got home.
She left the rest behind.
Melissa Flores Anderson is a Latinx Californian and an award-winning journalist. Her creative work has been published by Vois Stories, Rigorous Magazine, Moss Puppy Magazine, Variant Lit, Twin Pies Literary, Roi Fainéant Press, Chapter House Journal and Voidspace Zine. Follow her on Twitter @melissacuisine or IG @theirishmonths