Fiction | February 11, 2015
v.i.Prose: "Hum," a story by Michelle Richmond
“A service was needed, and we were willing to provide it,” says the unnamed female narrator of “Hum.” As the husband and wife protagonists embark on an assignment that amounts to a “luxurious house arrest” in the shadow of a neighboring embassy, they are plagued by the constant humming of secret equipment in a room they’re not allowed enter. Michelle Richmond’s eerie fable of political surveillance first appeared in TMR 30:2.
By Michelle Richmond
We could hear it from any point in the house—upstairs, downstairs, even the garage. From the kitchen the sound was faint, like the upswing of a snore with no silent intervals in between: all intake of breath, no release. While we were eating at the small table by the window, forks and knives clicking against our plates, it was there in the background, a reminder. If we spoke loudly, the hum could be drowned out for a moment. In the beginning we tried—it was like a game—to keep a dialogue going during the entire dinner just to cover the hum with the sound of our voices. This went on for our first few weeks in the house, but there were only the two of us there; we knew each other well, and there was not much to be said during any given meal. At one point, without ever voicing a mutual decision, we gave up. We fell into long silences, just the click of silverware on plates, the sound of wine being poured into a glass, the polite chewing—and beneath it all, or above it, the continual hum coming from the second bedroom, the source of our livelihood and of our growing discontent.
With music we could disguise it, could even forget it for three or four minutes at a time, but there was always the moment when one song ended, the tinny whir of the CD player while it moved on to the next, so that eventually even music lost its joy for me.
At night, from our room across the hall, we could hear it. “It’s just white noise,” my husband said. “If you’d stop thinking about it, you wouldn’t notice it at all.” So I tried to stop thinking about it, but the more I tried, the louder it became. My unease was intensified by the fact that we were not allowed to go into the second bedroom. In fact we had never even seen it.
Twice a month someone would stop by to check the equipment. He or she would arrive unannounced and knock discreetly on the front door. Often this person would bring a cake or a bottle of wine, so that it would look to our neighbors as though a friend had come calling. Once inside, he would avoid conversation and head straight for the second bedroom, toting a large duﬀel bag. Never once did any of the maintenance personnel—that’s how they always introduced themselves, not by name, but simply, “Hello, I’m the maintenance personnel”— agree to stay for coffee. Their abruptness heightened my sense that even though we were merely caretakers of the equipment, not its subjects, we were under its scrutiny twenty-four hours a day.
Because the equipment had to be supervised around the clock, my husband and I never went anywhere together. If we wanted to see a movie, we would toss a coin. The winner would walk down the street, past the rows of primly painted mansions, the neat driveways with expensive cars, across the city road, to the Cinaromaplex. The place was so named because of the machines that piped appropriate smells into the theater during movies—the smell of gunpowder during a gunfight scene, smoke and liquor during a bar scene. The Cinaromaplex was even equipped with the musty scent of sex for R-rated movies, and for the more gruesome films, there was the distinct, metallic odor of blood. The winner of the coin toss would come home straight after the movie, and the one who had been housesitting would go to the next showing. Later we would discuss the movie as if we had seen it together, as if we were an ordinary couple who went on outings as a pair rather than as two halves.
It was the same way with restaurants, plays and museums. When we first moved into the house, we made a pact that we would not sacrifice these small pleasures, the many cultural offerings of our beloved city. We decided to live as we always had, with minor adjustments. For a while we honored the pact, but about the same time we stopped insisting on dinner conversation we also ceased our elaborate efforts to see the same movies, eat at the same restaurants, view the same museum exhibits. The inevitable result was that over time we became more like roommates than a couple.
That is not to say I was entirely without companionship.
Some nights, unable to sleep, I would step into the backyard in my bathrobe. I would leave the porch light oﬀ, so as not to be seen, and would stand there in the dark, the wet grass working between my toes, and watch the Uradian Embassy. I would gaze up at the third-floor corner window, where the light was always on, and I would watch the ambassador sitting at his desk, his tie pulled askew. I could never really make out his face, just the figure of him there, and he always sat as still as a man could possibly sit, and I wondered what he was doing awake, night after night, while everyone else in the building slept.
I wanted to call up to him. I wanted to tell him about the second bedroom and the machinery that hummed behind the closed door. I wanted to tell him about the dissolution of his country, a dissolution the prospect of which might be only the vaguest fear to him, or perhaps even a nightmare he thought would likely come true—but no matter how vivid the nightmare, how disturbing his fears might have been, he could not have known for certain that his country was being slowly disassembled at that very moment, and that the machinery of its destruction hummed in the stately red-brick house behind him. This was what the equipment did: it listened, it watched, it recorded everything.
Those nights, standing in my borrowed yard and staring up at the ambassador’s window, I began to wonder if it is possible to love a man you have never met, if love can be born out of sympathy alone, and out of the knowledge that one’s own life’s work is intricately connected to the ruination of another. Could I love him simply for his insomnia, for the light cast by his window onto my sleeping lawn, for the knowledge that without him my own life would in some manner be rendered pointless?
I decided that I could.
I did not tell my husband about my late-night trips to the garden, although some nights he must have woken and found me gone. I did not tell him that I dreamed of this man’s country, of miles and miles of unused train tracks ending in abandoned towns, of once-prosperous markets that were now home to lonely clerks guarding a few loaves of bread, a single poor cut of meat. I did not tell him that there were days when I sat for hours imagining myself in the ambassador’s country, starting a new life with him there.
Isn’t it true that everyone, at some point, dreams of beginning anew—with new friends, new surroundings, a new lover? Doesn’t everyone, at least once, dream of abandoning her own life?
It does not really matter how my husband and I came to be caretakers of the equipment. Suffice it to say I knew someone who knew someone. A service was needed, and we were willing to provide it. The rules were explained to us clearly by the individual in charge: “You can’t have visitors; the department will retain the right to enter the house at our discretion, and the second bedroom will be strictly oﬀ-limits. Most importantly, under no circumstances should you have contact with anyone from the Uradian Embassy. Think of it as a luxurious house arrest.”
We moved in quietly on a Saturday, and that night we celebrated with champagne on the balcony overlooking our small, well-maintained backyard. “What do you suppose is going on in there?” my husband whispered, tipping his glass toward the Uradian Embassy.
“That’s exactly the kind of question you’re not supposed to ask.”
I glanced up at the embassy, and that was when I saw the ambassador for the first time, standing in a square of light in the third-floor corner window. He seemed to be staring out toward the river, but there was no moon that night, no way he could have seen the water in the darkness. Our own lights were oﬀ, so we must have been invisible to him. He reached up to loosen his tie, and I felt a quiet, guilty thrill, as if I had been invited to play some mysterious and possibly dangerous game, the stakes of which were unclear.
The ambassador’s country, which was so small that the media rarely took notice of it, had managed several years before to get on the wrong side of my own government. This involved a number of statements by Urada’s prime minister harshly criticizing our foreign policy. But there was more to it than that. Our government had attempted, first through economic and political pressures and later through a coup, to oust the prime minister, whose presence they considered to be a threat in the region. The coup had failed, in large part because it lacked the support of the citizenry, and ever since then a few dozen of our sharpest political and military minds had been working to slowly ruin Urada from the inside.
Over time, their efforts were proving successful. Urada’s bank system was in a shambles, all four of its major industries had been brought to their knees and violent splits had emerged within the major political parties. The most re¬cent elections had erupted into riots so widespread that the elections had to be postponed indefinitely. The country appeared to be on the brink of civil war. A high-ranking oﬃcial of our government took advantage of the riots to make a public statement that we were willing to “step in on behalf of the people” should the situation grow worse.
In the aftermath of the riots, I had seen the ambassador on television, ﬁrmly holding his ground. “Our leaders are aware,” he said, “that ‘step in’ is merely a euphemism for foreign troops, martial law and Urada’s loss of sovereignty.”
I did not know whether it was a trick of television cameras or a trick of the third-floor window, but the ambassador appeared much larger on television than he did from my backyard. He had dark hair giving way slightly to gray, blue eyes, a prominent forehead and a faint scar traversing the bridge of his nose—all of which, taken together, made him attractive in an unsettling way. He always wore a light-blue tie and dark suit, and on television he seemed to be in perpetual motion, his hands moving nervously as he spoke. If I could have talked to him in person, I would have told him that stillness suited him better, that those nights alone in his office he seemed possessed of a natural authority. But I could never speak to him. I could only admire him from afar.
Originally, moving into the house seemed like a wise decision. I secretly relished the idea of working in tandem with my husband, with a shared goal and a shared secret; perhaps it would help to rekindle a lost camaraderie between us. As it turned out, however, we rarely saw each other except on weekends and for a couple of hours between shifts. I would come home from a day spent catering to wealthy socialites at the spa I managed, exchange a few polite words with my husband before he left for his night shift at the gym and take a long, hot shower. I would step out of the shower and into the humming house, put on a bathrobe and pad barefoot downstairs. I would make myself a small dinner and sit alone at the kitchen table, waiting for darkness to fall. Then I would wander out to the backyard and look up at the corner window. The ambassador would always be there, framed within the light, a dark shape at his desk, sometimes writing or talking on the phone but usually just sitting completely still. It often struck me that he was a supremely lonely man, that we would make the perfect couple.
As for the second bedroom, we did have a key, but it was only to be used by direct order from the department or in case of extreme emergency.
I put this question to you now: Does loneliness constitute an emergency? What about despair? Add to this an unsettling attraction, perhaps affection, that slowly builds to something that by some definitions might be called love. Is this, then, an emergency? What would you have done, faced with the figure in the window, the ongoing ache of wanting to know him and the distance im¬posed by two governments locked in a philosophical war? And in a drawer in the kitchen, hidden beneath the napkins and coffee filters and the ﬂoral-patterned contact paper, a key. You have tried to forget it is there, but it is impossible to do so. Night after night, as the hum vibrates through the house, you run your fingers over the small, solid shape of the key.
In November, five months after we moved into the house, there was a sudden flurry of activity. Instead of coming twice a month, the maintenance personnel began appearing at our door once a week. By the end of December it was three times a week. In early January, five hundred of our soldiers arrived in Urada. It was termed a “peacekeeping mission,” but I imagined the citizens of Urada might see it differently. The event hardly made the news—just ten seconds on CNN’s World Minute, slightly better coverage on the BBC. Only by searching the small stories far back in the newspaper did I discover that the ambassador had bluntly criticized the action. “This is clearly a military occupation disguised as a benign peacekeeping mission,” he said.
Our own government didn’t seem to have anything to say about the situation, aside from a vague statement issued at a press conference about our responsibility to ensure freedom for the Uradians. There was no public outcry to speak of; even the most vociferous of the left remained silent. No one seemed to know where Urada was or what we were doing there.
During my nocturnal visits to the garden, I noticed that the ambassador was spending less and less time at his desk, more and more time staring out the window, yet he never even glanced my way. I had expended so much of my emotional energy on him, so much of my time, and he did not know I existed.
One night in early February I went so far as to turn on the light in the garden and stand in a spot easily visible from the ambassador’s window. I willed him to look at me. At one point he did glance in my direction. I could not tell if it was merely a tic of his neck, or if he acknowledged me with a small nod.
In March, the number of troops in Urada increased to a thousand, and our government promised to send more, bandying about noble words that rolled oﬀ their tongues with terrifying ease. “Freedom,” our president said, “duty,” utter¬ing the words with such conviction one might surmise that God himself was leading the whole operation. The discussion of Urada took up fewer than three minutes of an hour-long press conference. Soon thereafter the ambassador called a press conference of his own, which was attended by only half-a-dozen reporters. “This has gone too far,” he said. “All we ask is that you leave our country in peace.”
Three months after the occupation began, I felt myself giving in. It was eight o’clock on a Thursday evening, and my husband was working the late shift. I was alone in the house. I had taken my shower and enjoyed a simple, cold dinner of green salad with cranberries and goat cheese, along with a crisp chardonnay. I was sitting in the study, well into my third glass of wine, listening to soft music. Each time a song came to a close, I felt my throat tightening, my whole body tensing, as I waited for the humming interval between songs.
That night the hum seemed louder than ever. What was it about the hum that bothered me so? It was annoying, certainly, but it was more than that. The hum reminded me of him, and when I thought of him I could not help but con¬sider my own invisibility.
It was by some subconscious impulse that I found myself in the kitchen, star¬ing into the open drawer, my fingers traveling over the contact paper. Only after I had peeled the paper from the wood, loosened the piece of tape that held the key and slipped the key into my palm, did I realize what I was doing.
I walked down the hallway to the second bedroom, and it was only for the slightest moment that I hesitated. Then, as if of its own will, the key slid into the doorknob. I expected something quite different, I suppose: alarms, bright lights—at the very least, some resistance from the doorknob. But there was nothing, just the key sliding easily into place, clicking slightly as I turned it to the right, the doorknob yielding to my hand, the door swinging open.
I fumbled along the wall and found the light switch. The room was smaller than our own bedroom, the walls adorned with a fussy ﬂoral wallpaper that must have been chosen decades before by the original owners. Inside the room, the hum was even louder, a steady, high-pitched whine. The room was filled with computers, unidentifiable gadgets, tiny TV screens. Each screen was labeled: “Green Room,” “Blue Room,” “Meeting Hall,” “Entryway,” “Dining Hall,” “Bedroom 1,” “Bedroom 2” and so forth.
It was not the meeting rooms and offices that interested me, the large tables around which important matters were discussed. Nor the sound of serious voices, discussing Urada’s fate. It was not even the ambassador’s office I wanted to spy on, for I had seen him there too many times to count. What I desired was a more intimate picture—not of the ambassador but of the man.
I walked from screen to screen until I found one labeled “Ambassador’s Personal Suite.” There was a single chair, which I pulled up to the television. The screen was dark and grainy. I could make out a bed, a dresser, a rug. It took a few moments to focus, for my eyes to translate the moving shapes, but then it became clear—two bodies on the bed, the man partially clothed, the woman entirely naked.
Of course, what did I expect? He was doing what people do when their worlds fall apart: he was making love to his wife. There was no audio, just the rapid movement of their bodies, and all around me the high-pitched hum. I sat for several minutes, staring at the screen. The chair creaked each time I so much as shifted a knee, and I imagined an indistinct someone in some other dark room, listening in, noting the exact time the security of the second bedroom was breached.
Eventually the ambassador stood up and wandered away from the bed, into what must have been the bathroom. The woman lay naked on her side. A couple of minutes later the ambassador returned. I watched them fall asleep. I could see the rise and fall of their chests as they breathed. At some point I realized that I was breathing with them, the three of us in tandem, a synchronized trio of breath. I put the chair in its original place, closed the door behind me and returned the key to the kitchen drawer.
Around four in the morning I heard the front door open and my husband’s footsteps in the foyer. He came into the room where I was sitting, and in his face I could see he was startled to find me awake, sitting by the ﬁreplace.
He walked over and sat on the arm of the chair, touched my face.
“Why are you crying?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Come to bed.”
I allowed him to lead me there.
My husband was not an uncaring man. He had intellect, and charm. As far as I knew, he had never been unfaithful. He was not to blame for the fact that over time we had become quietly lost to each other.
In April the number of troops rose again, this time to 2,500. I continued to make my nightly trips to the garden. One night, the ambassador did not appear in his window. Nor the next night, or the next. Had he left the country? Had he relinquished his post? I searched the back pages of the paper for news of him, but there was nothing.
One afternoon in May, I left my husband to housesit while I went to see a movie at the Cinaromaplex. The title of the movie was Countdown Emergency! It was the kind of mindless blockbuster to which I have always been partial, the kind of movie that allows me to relax completely and forget my worries. When I arrived, however, it was already sold out. Rather than returning home to face my husband, who had been asking a lot of questions over the last few days—Why was I so quiet? Was I hiding something? Had he done something to upset me?— I bought a ticket to an independent ﬁlm from Bulgaria which had received international acclaim, exactly the type I always tried to avoid.
The poster for the Bulgarian ﬁlm called it “enlightening and thought-provoking.” I was not in the mood to be enlightened. I had come to the movies to clear my mind. The image I most wanted to erase was that of the ambassador’s wife lying naked on the bed. Even with the blurry view offered by the surveillance cameras, I could tell she had a lovely figure. My feelings about the ambassador’s wife could not properly be called jealousy. What she inspired in me could more aptly be described as a sense of loss. She lived day to day with the elegant and serious ambassador. Despite the fact that I had never met him, I had a feeling that we were matched in temperament, the ambassador and I, that in some complex way we were compatible. For all the good will I felt toward my husband, I could not say we were compatible.
The theater was already dark when I went in, and the ads were playing. A commercial for Hersheys came on, filling the air with the sweet, waxy smell of cheap chocolate. Although the theater was crowded, there were still a few pairs of empty seats scattered about. I walked halfway to the back and took a seat at the very end of a row, on the left. I placed my handbag and coat in the empty seat next to me, hoping to deter anyone who might wish to sit there. Under my feet, I could feel the vibrations from the action adventure movie playing on the lower level. There were the usual trailers, followed by short ads for the theater’s state-of-the-art sound and olfactory systems. Then the lights went down, a melancholy music began to play, and the scent of summer grass filled the air. On the screen there was a wide-open ﬁeld, bathed in sunlight, and two children running through it. It was strange to smell sun and grass when outside the weather was foggy and cold. Soon there was a kitchen on screen, a lonely housewife with a red kerchief around her head, the smell of baking bread.
“Excuse me,” a voice said. For a moment I thought the voice had come from the speakers, but then I caught sight of a figure in the aisle on my left. “Is that seat taken?” he asked. I didn’t look up to see his face; I just saw the hand with the popcorn gesturing at the seat next to me. Unhappily, I removed my coat and handbag from the empty seat and moved my legs aside to allow the man to pass. He was a big man, and he could not help brushing the backs of his legs against my knees as he squeezed by. I looked up. His back was to me, a broad back in a woolen coat, and yet something about him seemed so familiar that my breath caught in my throat.
He fumbled a bit getting into his seat, squeezed as it was between me and a rather large woman on the other side. Once he had sat down, I was able to see his face. It was the ambassador. He must have felt me looking at him because he glanced over and gave me a little nod. I quickly turned my eyes toward the screen. A man had entered the dreary kitchen and was arguing with the woman. The music ended, and their voices rose and fell in a kind of domestic rancor. I was too startled to read the subtitles imposed in white over the ugly scene. The smell of the ambassador’s popcorn mingled with the smell of baking bread from the movie, and I felt dizzy and a little nauseated.
I had always had the feeling that he rarely left the embassy, that he was trapped there in much the same way I was trapped in the house. But no, he was sitting beside me, flesh and blood. I could feel the heat from his body, and if I dared put my hand on the armrest, I might even touch his skin.
I spent the next two hours imagining possible scenarios, scripting each one in detail, with a beginning, middle and end. Some of the scenarios involved only a few minutes, while others stretched on for years. All the while I felt the ambassador breathing beside me, heard the popcorn crunching between his teeth. He kept moving around, unable to get comfortable, and several times his leg brushed against my own.
Finally the credits began to roll. The ambassador shifted in his seat, took his coat in his arms but did not get up. He leaned forward to watch the cred¬its. The theater began to empty. The credits went on and on. The emptier the theater became, the more strongly I felt the presence of the ambassador. Finally there was no one left but the two of us, sitting side by side in the dark. The final scene had been of a melancholy sexual encounter between the housewife and a bank manager, and the musky scent of sex lingered in the air, mingling with the ambassador’s cologne, a strange, foreign scent I hadn’t noticed before. Added to these smells was a faint tinge of my own perspiration. The darkness of the theater, the closeness of our two bodies, the rows upon rows of empty seats and the embarrassingly personal smells all combined to create an awkward intimacy.
By now the credits were finished, and he was obviously ready to leave. I gathered my handbag and coat and stepped into the aisle. I could hear him walking behind me. Moments later we were in the lobby. The next move came so easily, it felt as though I had been planning it all along. I had little to gain, much to lose, but what else could I do? I felt an acute sense of time passing, the remaining years moving rapidly toward an abrupt and unsatisfactory end.
I stopped and turned to face him. Our eyes were only inches apart. As the words formed in my mind, the hum began to grow fainter. “Mr. Ambassador,” I said, and the choice seemed clear now, inevitable. He looked up. “I’ve seen you around the neighborhood,” I blurted. “Would you like to have coffee?”
He paused for a moment before saying, “Why not?” It took me a few seconds to register his response. Instead of my catching him oﬀ guard, it was the other way around.
We stepped outside, into the dim, foggy light. “I know a place just a few blocks from here,” the ambassador said. I found myself being led by him along the crowded city street. It was a sensation at once thrilling and embarrassing; some¬how, he had managed to put me in the role of an obedient child. As we walked, we talked very little. He made a comment about the weather, then pulled out his cell phone and checked his messages. He walked very fast; it was an effort to keep up. Eventually we arrived at a hole-in-the-wall sort of establishment, not a café but a bar. He glanced around before slipping inside the open door. There was no one in the place except the bartender, who looked up from the television and said to the ambassador, “I thought you’d disappeared.”
“Hello, Roy,” the ambassador replied in a jovial, familiar way. “I’ve been very busy.” He walked to a little booth in a back corner, and not until we were seated did he finally put his cell phone away. He propped both elbows on the table and leaned forward, resting his chin on his folded hands. “Well,” he said, smiling, “you obviously know my name. What’s yours?”
“Susan,” I lied. Everything had happened so quickly and unexpectedly, it suddenly seemed wise not to divulge my real name.
“Jack and Coke?” the bartender said, pulling a bottle oﬀ the shelf.
“Yes, and she’ll have—” The ambassador paused, waiting for my response.
“A glass of pinot, please.”
A radio station was playing over the speakers. The DJ had just come back from a commercial break and was announcing the call letters—KNBA, out of Anchorage, Alaska. “It’s local appreciation hour,” the DJ said. “Here’s the Glacial Explosion, singing ‘Time to Waste.’”
The ambassador hummed along to the song. “The best way to judge a bar is by the music it plays,” he said. “Roy knows his music.”
Roy brought our drinks and returned to his stool behind the bar. A small overhead television was tuned to a soccer game.
The ambassador raised his glass in a toast. “To you, Susan.”
I raised my glass in kind but didn’t know where to go from there. Anything I’d ever wanted to say to him seemed inappropriate. The thrill of ﬁnally being eye to eye with the ambassador was somewhat tempered by the fact that it all seemed too easy, too quick. “I’ve seen you on TV,” I said. “I’ve been keeping up with what’s going on.”
“Why?” He was looking at me with genuine surprise.
“Your country’s been through a lot.”
“It’s a disaster,” he said. “I talk and talk, but no one listens.”
“At least you have your principles.”
He stared at me with an amused expression. After all those months of ob¬serving him, I was the one who suddenly felt like a specimen under a microscope. “But you have something better,” he said. With a sweep of his arm he indicated the open door, the world waiting outside. “You have this dream.”
“What good is a corrupt dream?” I asked.
“A dream is always better than a nightmare.”
He finished oﬀ his drink and ordered another, plus a second glass of wine for me. I had taken only a few sips of my ﬁrst glass, but, feeling the need for courage, I quickly emptied it. Over the next hour, the ambassador asked me questions about my job, my background and ﬁnally my family. “I suppose you have a husband,” he said.
By now I was finishing my third glass of wine. “I do.”
“I suppose you will not be telling the husband about this afternoon.”
“I don’t see how we’ve done anything wrong,” I said. I could feel my face getting hot. The ambassador seemed to be enjoying my discomfort.
“True, but we both know we’re about to,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Part of me could not believe his directness, his lack of diplomacy. Another part of me understood that his steady gaze and his unembarrassed proposition were small-scale indiscretions, perfectly befitting a man who dared defy the most powerful government on the planet.
Just as easily as he had found the bar, he found a hotel, an old four-story building that had probably been elegant at one time. The brass fixtures in the lobby had lost their sheen, and the red carpet on the grand staircase was worn and faded. While he checked in I browsed the hotel’s gift shop, which contained the usual postcards bearing picturesque photos of the river, the hills, the city skyline. I was feigning interest in the postcards when he came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. It was the first tender gesture he had made since we’d met, and I felt all my feelings flooding back—desire, affection, pity, even a strange sense of camaraderie. Looking back, I realize that I was not thinking of my husband at that moment; in hindsight, this mental omission seems strange. After all, I had never been unfaithful before, and if my husband discovered my infidelity, the marriage would surely be over. At the time, however, I was think¬ing only of the ambassador, replaying once again in my imagination the preposterous scenarios I had charted out for us.
If the lobby was elegantly dingy, the room itself, on the third floor overlook¬ing the alley, was unabashedly depressing. Judging from the ﬁne layer of dust coating the wooden desk and yellow silk lampshade, it might have been months since anyone had stayed there. In a classier hotel the ’70s-era furnishings might have been stylishly retro, but here they were simply out-of-date.
There was nothing astonishing about the encounter. We undressed and got into bed, we kissed and touched and made the appropriate encouraging sounds. But for all my fantasies, all my nights of fevered dreaming, the event itself lacked passion. He finished too soon and apologized; I assured him I did not mind; we watched a few minutes of news on the television, and then he fell asleep. I sat on the edge of the bed for several minutes, listening. Because the room was located at the back of the hotel, oﬀ the main street, there were not even the ordinary city sounds to intrude upon our privacy. The hum was gone, completely, and what I heard in its place was silence, but it was not a comforting silence. There was something distressing about the absence of sound. Watching him sleep, a pale, bloated figure beneath the sheets, I realized I wasn’t going to tell him about the second bedroom.
As I was getting dressed to leave, the ambassador woke up. “I’ll see myself out,” I said, but he insisted on accompanying me. Perhaps it was a custom of his country to walk the mistress to the door, or maybe it was simply a tardy attempt at good manners. At any rate, I could not dissuade him.
On the way out, he insisted that we stop in the gift shop, where he browsed for a few minutes before settling on a paperback book titled Haunted City. A hand-lettered index card on the display shelf noted that the hotel itself received mention on page 74. The ambassador asked the ancient woman behind the desk to gift-wrap the book, which she did sloppily, although it was clear she was giving it her best effort. He paid, then handed the package to me. I wasn’t sure how he intended it to be received. Was it a parting gift? Was it some sort of consolation prize?
Just outside the door of the hotel he asked, “Which way are you going?”
I pointed vaguely in the direction of home. “You?” I asked.
To my relief, he nodded in the opposite direction.
After that, I ended my nightly trips to the garden. When I did venture out, it was always in some sort of disguise—with a scarf wrapped around my face or in a bulky hat. Occasionally I saw him in the window, but never again would I perceive him as I had on that first night, when he looked the picture of a noble man, principled and brave.
Every now and then, his country made some small blip in the news, most notably when the prime minister was ousted by a military coup. In the second bedroom, the machines kept humming. I did not do anything to stop them. My husband and I lived there for another year before receiving the news that our services were no longer needed. By then we had saved enough money to buy a place of our own. My final act in the house was to open the drawer in the kitchen and make sure the key was in its proper place. I added a spot of glue to the contact paper in order to secure it ﬁrmly to the wood, hoping to hide any evidence of my indiscretion.
Not long ago I saw the ambassador on TV, reporting for a cable news network, where he had taken a job as an international correspondent. He was reporting from the capital of Urada, and the buildings behind him were pockmarked with bullet holes. “I am standing on the site of the latest bloody battle between the new military government and the soldiers of the old guard,” he said. His report showed no bias, no emotion, no despair, and I could not help but wonder how I could have been so singularly wrong in my initial judgment of him. I turned oﬀ the sound and watched the former ambassador. I was mesmerized even then by his blue eyes, the elegant scar across his nose. The report went on for another ﬁve minutes or so, during which time I tried and failed to recall the ambassador—not as he was but as I had dreamed him to be.
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