He is the War Correspondent, she is the Transgressive Novelist. They have been flown in for the summit on Genocide(S). She spots him at the airport baggage claim and nods in the direction of a student holding up a legal pad with his name written on it in heavy black marker – misspelled.
‘Want to share my ride?’ he asks.
Caught off guard, she shakes her head no.
She doesn’t want anyone picking her up, doesn’t want the obligation to entertain the young student/fan/retired teacher/part-time real-estate broker for the forty-five minutes it takes to get where they’re going.
Every time she says yes to these things – conferences, readings, guest lectures – it’s because she hasn’t learned to say no. And she has the misguided fantasy that time away from home will allow her to think, to get something done. She has brought work with her: the short story she can’t crack, the novel she’s supposed to finish, the friend’s book that needs a blurb, last Sunday’s newspaper . . .
‘Nice to see you,’ the man at the car-rental place says, even though they’ve never met. He gives her the keys to a car with New Hampshire plates, live free or die. She drives north toward the small college town where experts in torture politics, murder, along with neuroscientists, academics, survivors, and a few ‘special guests’ will convene in what’s become an ongoing attempt to make sense of it all, as though such a thing were possible.
The town has climbed out of a depression by branding itself, ‘America’s Hometown’. Flags fly from the lampposts. Signs announce the autumn harvest celebration, a film festival, and a chamber-music series at the Presbyterian church.
She parks behind the conference center and slips in through the employee entrance and down the long hall to a door marked this way to lobby.
On the wall is a full-length mirror with a handwritten message on the glass: check your smile and ask yourself, am i ready to serve?
The War Correspondent comes through the hotel’s front door at the same time as she slides in through the unmarked door by the registration desk.
‘Funny seeing you here,’ he says.
He stands at the reception desk. The thick curls that he long ago kept short are receding; in compensation they’re longer and more unruly.
He makes her uncomfortable, uncharacteristically shy.
She wonders how he looks so good. She glances down. Her linen blouse is heavily wrinkled, while his shirt is barely creased.
The receptionist hands him an important-looking envelope from FedEx.
She’s given a heavily taped brown box and a copy of the conference schedule.
‘What did you get?’ she asks as he’s opening the FedEx.
‘Galleys of a magazine piece,’ he says. ‘You?’
She shakes the box. ‘Cracker Jacks?’
She glances down at the schedule. ‘We’re back-to-back at the opening ceremonies.’
‘What time is the first event?’
‘Twelve thirty.’ She thinks of these things as marathons; pacing is everything. ‘You’ve got an hour.’
‘I was hoping to take a shower,’ he says.
‘Your room’s not quite ready,’ the receptionist tells him.
‘Did you fly in from a war zone?’ she asks.
‘Washington,’ he says. ‘There was a Press Club dinner last night, and I was in Geneva the day before, and before that the war.’
‘Quite a slide from there to here,’ she says.
‘Not really,’ he says. ‘No matter how nice the china, it’s still a rubber chicken.’
The receptionist clicks the keys until she locates a room that’s ready. ‘I found you a lovely room. You’ll be very happy.’ She hands him the key card. ‘You’re both on the executive floor.’
‘Dibs on the cheese cubes,’ he says.
She knew him long ago before either of them had become anyone. They were part of a group, fresh out of college, working in publishing, that met regularly at a bar. He was deeply serious, a permanently furrowed brow, and he was married – that was the funny thing, and they all talked about it behind his back. Who was married at twenty-three? No one ever saw the wife – that’s what they called her. Even now she doesn’t know the woman’s name.