by Jori Sackin
You hear the click of your shoes against the tiles as you dart your way through a constant stream of people. Even though you know that no one's picking you up, you still scan the faces and black sharpie signs of the people waiting blankly in front of the gates, staring at the planes that have not yet arrived. As you stand by the baggage claim you hear the motor start to whirr, watch the sliding pieces of metal sandwiched together rotate and lurch forward as the luggage drops from an internal conveyor belt that is a constant source of mystery. The luggage spins around till you recognize your own black bag with a brightly colored scarf tied around the handle. You throw it over your shoulder and walk out into the unexpectedly cold air, quickly scan the street for a cab and hop in. As you're being driven, you stare out the window, rest your head against the cool glass and feel each bump in the road, take in the mixture of the crackly smooth jazz on the radio and the strange smells of the cab as you move through the highway system of an unfamiliar city.
At the hotel, you pick up the flat key card with the magnetic strip from a young woman at the desk who puts down her cell phone when she see's you coming. She is polite but nervous. Doesn't quite understand the new computer system that she explains has just been installed. You ride the elevator in silence with a young couple that's trying to hide the fact they just had a fight. The girl's face is red and the boy's is buried in his phone. She gives you a look that tells you she's irritated about inadventently showing her instability to a stranger. You look away, but the walls are mirrored, so you catch her eyes again. She throws a menacing glance at her boyfriend that is deflected by the video game he is in intently concentrating on. He stands motionless, except for his thumbs, moving small colored blocks around on a tiny screen. You stare straight ahead to the vast array of buttons as the elevator continues to climb.
With a "ding" the doors slide open and you move quickly down the hall, taking note of the numbers, whether they're rising or falling, trying to make sense of the arrow directions and also trying to remember how to come back this way in the morning. Your feet take long strides across the floral patterned carpet, the pale green vines of the fabric twisting and weaving around a never ending sequence of flat pink roses. Finally your room. 602. You put your bag down. Push the card into the slot. A green light flashes and makes a satisfying "click" as you turn the handle and give the door a kick. It swings open but just as quickly swings back shut closing on your bag. You pull harder, stumble into the room, as the door slams behind you.
After doing an initial survey, you throw the suitcase on the bed, pull the zipper all the way around and flop it open. You leave it there. Open the stiff beige drapes. Let the light stream in and exhale deeply. You stand quietly in this moment. There is no one bumping into the furniture in the next room. No horns blaring. No keys rustling. You stand for a moment listening, and then you begin to unpack. You've carefully packed "like" things together. The shirts are with the shirts. Your underwear's neatly stacked on top of each other. The toiletries fit nicely in a clear plastic bag. As you unpack you remove these "like" items in bunches. The underwear and socks go into the drawers that sit directly under the television. The shirts and pants are hung in the closet with the provided wooden hangers. The bathroom bag is immediately opened and the items are neatly arranged around the sink. After finishing, you take the empty suitcase and toss it on the comfy sofa chair you will never sit in. You lay down on the bed, turn on the tv and relax.
After flipping through the channels, you turn it off, drop the remote on the floor and look over to the empty suitcase. You suddenly remember a conversation you had a few weeks ago. You and a friend where talking about an art show that you both felt obligated to be at. You were standing in front of a painting, drinking and talking and disagreeing about something that at the time you thought was important, but now you can't quite remember what it was. You were saying, "Let's unpack this together and see where it takes us." You were pointing to a painting of an open window, the view looking down to a garden below. There were purple flowers. The shadow of the house cut across the lawn and a white chair was positioned in the yard, just to break up the overwhelmingly vivid green of the grass. "Let's unpack this together," you say to yourself. "What the hell was I talking about?"
Your attention again settles on the empty suitcase on the chair. You get up and walk over to it. Look down at the black mass of folded material that now lies crumpled in on itself. "Suitcases are containers," you think. "They contain all of our stuff." You peer inside the empty case, see a few crumbs of something unrecognizable stuck in the corners. "We put our things in them that we want to transport and when we arrive we take them all back out again, re-organize them in our new space." You walk over to the dresser, put your hand on the cool laminate wood. "The shoes go on the floor in the closet. The shirts go on the hangers. The soaps and lotions and toothbrushes go in the bathroom. The socks in the sock drawer. But in different drawers. In different closets. On different hangers. Same stuff. Different place."
You scratch your head. Stretch your body, as if this will help you think. "If a painting is a suitcase then what's inside of it?" Certainly not socks and underwear and toothbrushes, or at least, that's not what you meant when you said it. You let that thought hang there a moment, but nothing else comes, so you decide to strip down, throw your clothes on the floor and climb into the off-white fiberglass box of a shower. You cringe at the signs of other life, the slight browning in the bottom of the tub, the faint mineral build up on the edge of the faucet. The water warms and you forget all those feet and arms and legs that washed themselves, find the tiny soap wrapped in paper, scrub yourself down and rinse off.
You stand naked in the bathroom in front of the steamed up mirror. Smear a section with your hand so you can see your face. "If a painting is a suitcase, what do we put into it? Ourselves?" You hold your belly in your hands and smile. "We put our emotions, our thoughts, our personal histories. We stuff them in there like our rolled up socks." You find a small white towel hanging on the inside of the bathroom door and begin to towel off. "We put other people in there, like those two on the elevator. That couple. The way that woman looked at me. We take her look, her scrunched up shoulders, her red defensive eyes, and we cram it in there." You drop the towel on the floor and go to the closet, slide the door open and look at your shirts all hanging next to each other.
"We take all those things and fit them in there. Put it in a gallery. People come from all over to look and wonder what's inside. Every once in a while someone will actually open it, unpack all that stuff, maybe take it home with them. Put your rolled up socks in their sock drawer. See how that feels. Pull the couple from the elevator out of the bag. Take out her scrunched up shoulders, her red defensive eyes, lay them on the bed next to the small white towel and the plastic bag of razors, shampoo and deodorant. How does that feel, having them in the room with you now, seeing them lying stiffly on the bed, still angry at each other, but unable to speak because of your presence?"
You put a plain yellow shirt on, button it up as you walk over to the window and look down to the rows of air conditioning units below. At least you think they are air conditioning units. Maybe they are something else. In a certain mood you might find a view like this depressing, unnatural, vacant, but today you get a small enjoyment from looking at the beauty of the machined order, the little boxes performing their purpose. The boxiness of the machinery and the parking lots fade into the boxiness of the office buildings and high rises downtown which fades into the vast orange gray of the sky. There is a beautiful greying of the world outside, a total lack of distinction. Everything melts into everything else, except the air conditioning units, the machined boxes. They have a crisp line that refuses to melt. You listen to their collective hum for awhile before you check your watch again.
Turning toward the room, you move to the sofa chair, the empty black bag, shake it to try to get it to hold more of a form. You have not upgraded to the hard bulletproof looking rolly cases that everyone else seems to own. You still have the same hard cornered duffle bag looking thing your parents gave you in college. "When we look at a painting, we enter into it," you think. "We go inside, looking for something. We go on a journey, so we need a suitcase...to carry our stuff." You walk around the room with the empty suitcase, mimicking a little journey. "When we're in there, we get lost, go around in circles, lose our way, but sometimes we find something. Sometimes we bring something back." You walk over the bed and back to the sofa chair, drop the bag next to it, as if this is the end of your journey. "It seems so cliche, but that's how we talk about it. That's how we think about it. Everything about a suitcase seems cliche," you think. "That girl has a lot of baggage. That guy just can't let things go. She really carries it around with her. A heavy load."
You remember a play you saw recently. There was a character, a woman in a soft blue dress, that carried around a suitcase the entire time. We were supposed to wonder, 'What's in the suitcase?' The mystery was supposed to keep us engaged. Was it her troubles, her dreams, her unconscious desire to sleep with her girlfriend's brother? No. It was nothing. There was nothing in there. You could tell by how easily she swung it around on stage. "It's empty," you say to yourself. "It's hollow. Devoid of meaning. It has nothing substantial inside. It's flat. On the surface. Doesn't have any depth."
You again look out the window, hold your belly in your hands. "I'm a container for stuff. But what stuff?" Your hands rest on the bones of your hips. "Maybe I'm full of myself. Maybe there's a thousands little me's inside, all scrunched together like sardines, all talking and thinking and trying to make their move." Your hands move up to your head, press in on it from either side like some people do when they have a headache. "What's in here? Air conditioning units? Rows and rows of little grey machines all whirring and turning, their fan belts spinning and kicking up air. A massive interconnected system of little machines, all adding up to this thing that doesn't even know the inner workings of its own construction."
You press in on your forehead, give yourself a little massage. "And here is the orange grayness of the city, the total lack of distinction. Soft slopping edges. Murky waters. Black pools of rainbow fluorescence swirling in a chemical soup like so many parking lot puddles." Your hands slide down your face till they cover your cheeks. "Maybe I'm stuffed with toothbrushes and little shampoos, unwrapped hotel soaps and half squeezed toothpaste containers. Or maybe I'm full of the red carpet roses, the stiff fabric of the green vines curling over and over till there's no room for anything else."
You pace around again making your way in-between the bed and the television, then over the mattress and back to the window. "Room. That's the problem though. There's always more room. I don't ever get full. I'm bottomless. No, not bottomless. More like a suitcase that is constantly expanding, worming and tangling itself inside, around every possible corner, twisting and molding itself to use every inch. But on the outside, I look like the same soft nondescript rectangular black bag." Your hands again move to your head. "In here though, I have all the room in the world. I have room to fit the air conditioning units, all whirring away in a perfectly ordered grid. I can drop them right into the black fluorescent sludge sloshing and swirling with its flat rainbow tentacles, watch as those tentacles wiggle their way out of the murky waters and burst into green vines, twisting themselves around the air conditioning units, raising them higher and higher in a mountain of tangled plants. And as it rises out of the pearlescent sludge, the couple, the one on the elevator is placed on top like the bride and groom on a wedding cake. The unwrapped tiny soaps decorate it like dabs of icing and the endless carpet roses fall from the sky like so much game show confetti. And even after all of that, there's still room for more. The metal slabs of the baggage claim come apart and fan out setting the whole thing on a plater, and the people of the airport emerge out of the metallic slots and start to bob and weave around each other like some complicated synchronized swimming routine. There could be a whole fleet of airplanes circling. Each flying closely behind the other. The pilots stick their heads out the window. Yell and blare their horns in unison, like they're metro bus drivers late for their last stop. And each time I add something," you think "it grows without gaining an inch. The whole world, the entirety of it could be set delicately on the head of a pin. That's how elastic the space is in here."
You trace the line in your left hand with your finger. "These hands," you say. "These hands could rip up all the carpet in the hallway, roll it into one big floppy cylinder and cram it in the door. These hands could take the AC units, haul them up the stairs, stack them one by one like blocks, until I couldn't see the walls. They could steal all the tiny soaps in all the rooms and build a pyramid to the ceiling. They could take apart the taxi cab I came in and fit it in here like the most complicated game of Tetris. Like tiny colored blocks on a screen." You could take a thousand rolls of toilet paper and shove it in the cracks, like a soft insulation, filling all the tiny nooks and empty spaces like a yellowing spray foam expanding in every possible direction. And then that would be it. No more room. You would have to put all your weight against the door to get it to shut. Maybe you could slip the keycard underneath. The contents of your wallet. Raid the continental breakfast platters and with greasy spoons push an entire pancake buffet under the crack in the door, but then what? You'd be completely out of room.
There's a built-in wall heater with a metal plate that flips up as you push it down, revealing a simple digital interface. You press a button and the fan kicks on. You sink down to the beige carpet and lean against the wall, feel the air blow on your neck from the thin slots of the grate. You look at your watch. 5:19. In twenty minutes you will be standing at the entrance of the hotel stepping into a cab. In a half hour you will be walking into a restaurant scanning the room for the people you are supposed to meet. In three or four hours you will be back here, lying against this same wall, thinking this same thought, running it over in your mind. Except it won't be the same thought, because you will have done all that stuff. It will be like the rolled up socks. Same socks. But now the drawer is different. Same room. But now you have changed.
Your head is buzzing. You stand up. Decide it's time to put some pants on. You walk over to the drawer that is directly underneath the television and open it. There are your underwear, still neatly stacked, and there are your socks, and there is the bare wood of the drawer, and the drawer handle, and your hand holding it. You pick up the underwear, a pair of white socks, and put them on. Walk over to the closet. Take your jeans from the hanger. Put the right leg in first and then the left. You button the metal button. Walk into the bathroom and look in the mirror. There you are. Look at yourself. Look. You appear almost exactly as you did when you came in. Slightly different clothes. A little cleaner. Wet hair. But seemingly the same. The face is the same. Your arms are the same length. You are just as tall. Just as heavy. Your toes feel just the same on the cool tile floor. You smile and see your reflection smile back. What a strange illusion.