Room Service

Photo by Stephen Shore

This morning I woke up, but I wasn’t me.
 I put on clothes that were too big, looked in the mirror… didn’t recognize myself.
 I thought: I’m dreaming. Maybe I should get back to bed, hide under the sheets. I pinched myself hard and let out a cry. The stranger took a leap backward.

I inspected the premises. Nothing looked familiar. I’m in another man’s body, in an apartment or room that wasn’t mine. Someone knocked at the door. Once, twice. I opened.

“Room service!”

Champagne, lobster, toasts. My hand trembled as I signed the receipt. I dismissed the hotel employee. I heard the sound of something crashing in the bathroom behind me. I rushed over.

Fear stiffened me as I saw a young woman, half naked, bound and gagged. Lifting the rag from her mouth, she started screaming. I put the gag back in its place. I needed time to think . Don’t give in to any hysterics.

I walked back into the room. The bed was all messed up. There were clothes on the sofa. I took off what I was wearing, tried on others. My size. There was a jacket on a chair. Maybe there was a clue to be found in one of its pockets: a wallet, a small case with glasses, some bills, a cell phone, a driver’s license but no photo that matched the face I’d seen in the mirror. It was someone else, a bald man. But the man whose body I inhabited was very hairy. Was I going crazy?

I was sitting on the edge of the bed with my head between my hands. Think, think harder. Let’s see... I woke up in this bed, but what did I do before? Where had I fallen asleep? What could have happened? I racked my memory, provoking a sudden headache. Finally, something came back to me.

Last night I slept at my place, in my studio, with Sarah, my girlfriend. An ordinary evening. I could see the studio in front of me: a large floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the surrounding roofs. We had gone to the movies earlier, the last showing—a strange film we didn’t know anything about. It was the only movie playing at that hour. I had no recollection of it. Back home, both exhausted, we fell into a deep slumber. Nothing special, nothing that justified me finding myself in this hotel room, in another man’s body.

While I was ruminating on all of this, I noticed a red stain on the carpet. I followed its trace. It led to a head, then to a body—a motionless body. A man lay on his side. I hadn’t spotted him since he had been concealed behind the bed. Blood flowed from his throat. I recognized the man from the ID photo I found in the jacket. I shuddered. The woman in the bathroom started making noise again. She was struggling to untie herself and must have caused some object to fall.

I’d forgotten about her. I had to do something, one way one another. I went back in. I owed her an explanation. Only, I didn’t quite know what to tell her. I didn’t understand much of it myself.

“Listen, Miss... It’s not what you think...”

She didn’t look very convinced.

“I’m not the one who is talking to you. I know, it seems a bit far-fetched, but I am not me. I am in another man’s body. I assure you, I don’t quite grasp any of it myself. It’s all a huge misunderstanding.”

Her eyes widened.

“I beg you, give me a few minutes to understand what is happening, please. Believe me, I am in a very scary situation. You can’t imagine...”

“Mmm mmm mmm...”

Her look indicated that she wasn’t imagining anything at all at the moment, that she was going through a pretty rough time herself.

“I’ll take off your gag, but promise you won’t scream.”

I took the rag out. She began screaming even louder. She bit my wrist so hard it bled. Exasperated, I slapped her. I put the gag back in its place as well as I could and made sure it was securely attached. Trusting her was out of the question.

I went back into the room and picked up my train of thought where I had left off. I sat on the edge of the bed, in despair. I still didn’t recognize the person in the mirror. I served myself some champagne. I realized I was hungry. All these intense emotions had stirred up my appetite. I was fully aware of the absurdity of the whole scene, but I started becoming detached. My stomach followed its own logic. I devoured the lobster while trying to focus, seeing if perhaps there was some detail I hadn’t noticed, a tiny hint that would help me solve everything.

Images flashed before my eyes, a dazzling array of clichés strung themselves together at an accelerating pace: the previous evening, the hotel employee, the movie theater, the young woman, Sarah, the bald man. Then, a series of numbers, a phone number I was recomposing in my head. A phone number with the inscription “in case of panic.” Yes, that’s it! A number to call in case I was panicking! But why? I saw the whole number before me now. I only had to dial it. Without knowing too well what would come of it, I took the cell phone from the jacket on the chair.

“Hello? Hello?”

“Yes, sir. I am listening.”

“I… Do you know who I am?”

“Of course. We were expecting your call.”

“You knew I was going to call?”

“Absolutely, sir. It’s standard. Generally, people call within the hour following the transfer.”

“The transfer… What are you talking about?”

“Do not worry. Soon it will all come back to you.”

“Can you tell me where I am, and who I am?”

“You are where you wanted to be. You set in motion everything that is now happening to you. All is as planned.”

“What do you mean? I’m at the scene of a crime! In the body of another man! In a place I don’t know! And there is a woman tied and gagged in my bathroom!”

“That’s perfect, then. I am sorry, but I will have to hang up now. We will talk again soon. Don’t forget, your time is precious. You will have to make some crucial decisions, detrimental choices. Good luck, and we shall speak soon.”

“No, no! Wait… Please!”

Dial tone. Alone again. I began to feel something changing, as if, within the depths of my soul, some obscure mutations were taking place right then and there. I understood that it was impossible to maintain the status quo within this current ordeal. I needed to understand what had happened.

I had a déjà vu moment. I knew this woman in the bathroom. I had followed her, or maybe awaited her. I had discreetly made my way into the hotel. Obviously, I had been filmed by one of the scores of security cameras hanging all over the place. I needed to escape, run as far as I could or else be arrested and imprisoned. The hotel employee had seen me. An ace in the hole: the thick hair and beard made me unrecognizable.

So I had entered the room, maybe pretending to be room service. In this way I had managed to catch the couple off-guard. But I couldn’t have done anything without a weapon… There must be a weapon somewhere. A gun? A knife? The woman had bruises on her body — a blunt object? I have to find it and wipe off the fingerprints.

A survival instinct now nourishes my thoughts, working overtime. I inspect the bald guy’s body. I notice multiple cuts, slashed by a knife. One of them in his throat — the fatal blow. A more thorough analysis makes me think he was tortured. He is also tied up, which leaves me to conclude that the poor man wasn’t able to defend himself.

The woman in the bathroom… What was I going to do with her? All of a sudden, a feeling of horror came over me: this isn’t the first time I’m witnessing this scene.

I got myself back together. What am I saying? I need to remember last evening. It’s all that connects me to reality, my reality.
I think about Sarah. I mentally draw the contours of her face, then those of my own: my real appearance. My apartment, my family, my job, my life… all the things that made me me. But something strange is happening. As much as I could remember my existence, the shreds of my reconstructed life were evaporating, collapsing like a house of cards, the foundation crumbling, making the whole seem more hypothetical than real.

I’m overcome with doubt. Am I making it all up? Sarah—a pure invention? The movie, did I ever watch it? My studio and the wall-to-ceiling window, an illusion?

Time is ticking and it’s too dangerous to stay here any longer. I recover one of the weapons from under the bed: a simple truncheon. I rinse it and take it with me for safety. I also find the knife: a switch blade stained with dried blood. I meticulously clean everything. Don’t leave any fingerprints. Then I open the door and sneak out of the room. I spot the cameras and hide my face the best I can.

When I reach the end of the hallway, the transformation is almost complete. A peculiar pleasure takes ahold of me, the same way a caterpillar feels when it sheds its cocoon and discovers its butterfly wings for the first time. I feel fully functional, awakened.

Now I’m resolved to get out, at any cost.

I understand that I don’t have a choice. I can’t leave any witnesses behind.

— “Room Service” is reproduced here under Paris Lit Up’s Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Unported License.

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