Secret Convention

Lana Spendl

A man screamed, and Robina jerked awake to the darkness of the hotel room. The scream weakened in force—as if the man were falling down from a rooftop and into the distance—and Robina sat halfway up on the bed and looked at her husband’s sleeping back and then at her children on the other queen-sized bed.

Jack was lying on his side with his eyes wide open like a horror-film child. “What was that?” he whispered.

His sister Nicole lay undisturbed behind him. A profound silence engulfed both mother and son. After a moment, Robina lay back down onto her side and said, “It was nothing, sweetie. Sometimes you hear other people in hotels. Go to sleep. We’ll see boats at the beach tomorrow.”

And Jack, looking a little doubtful, but calmer, closed his little eyes. He let out a half-hiccup-half-breath, and minutes later, his facial muscles went slack. But a fly of worry buzzed round Robina’s mind. Had someone been hurt? Should she phone the front desk? But such silence prevailed now that she pushed the thought from her mind. She nestled her cheek against the pillow and pulled the comforter over her shoulder. A flavor of her lost dream remained—a hint of softness and slow movements—but try as she might, she could not revive its characters or setting or storyline.

A knock then sounded against the wall. Robina sat up and pushed the covers back. And behind the wall, a man released a deep hard sigh. They were having sex, Robina realized. She grew warm all over and a feather of a feeling tingled in her gut. Dread overtook her that the man might scream again, and without looking at little Jack to see if he had awoken—she could suddenly not look at anyone in the eye—she hurried to the spot near the television stand where she had left her sneakers after dinner. She slipped them on and hurried out into the hallway in her man’s shirt and sweatpants.

At the neighbors’ door, a slap against the skin was heard, and a yelp, and yet another cry, and Robina knocked with quick hard knocks to cover up their sounds. Her face and neck grew warm, and she crossed her arms over her chest and stared at the carpet. She felt embarrassed, but she needed them to quiet down. She was a mother and a wife.

But no one came to the door. Minutes passed. Robina’s resolve wavered. She looked up and down the hallway to make sure no one was around, and she leaned her face in sideways and listened with knitted brows.

“I’ll bite your balls off if you don’t lick it,” a woman said inside.

And then a man moaned and another man laughed.

Robina’s hand flew to her mouth. Blood rushed to her feet as if she had stood too fast, and the world, for a second, went a dizzy dark. She pressed a palm against the wall to hold herself upright. The shaded lights of the hallway and the beige carpet and the white walls came back into focus. And Robina’s eyes flew across the hallway—to walls, to paintings, to doors, to golden key slots—in search of an anchor, in search of something to stabilize her, in search of something to give her ground. She wished for the inanimate objects to give her strength. She wished for them to unite in their solidity and push against the scene on the other side of the door. But they sat in place. Silent. Indifferent. And then the lewd images on her husband’s computer from years back flooded her mind. She had not thought of them for some time. And tears sprang to Robina’s eyes.

She pictured the darkness of the world then, and it was like the darkness of the ocean depths where beasts swam slow and sought their pleasure and swallowed one another in great big bites. And she was small within it all—a shimmer of light on a fishing hook—and she felt it her duty to fight against the darkness, but the mere thought of fighting made the muscles in her arms tremble and threaten to collapse.

And as she wiped her cheeks with her fingers, she noticed the elevator’s golden doors at the end of the hall. Someone would be at the front desk, she thought. And the idea of authority brought such life to her limbs that she speed-walked down the hall and gulped her quick breaths down.

A teenager in an ill-fitting uniform sat on a stool behind the front desk, reading a sci-fi novel and picking at a pimple on his chin with a finger. When the elevator doors opened, he looked up, noticed Robina’s quick step, stood to attention, and placed his fat book down.

“The people next door are biting each other’s testicles off,” Robina, stopping before him, blurted out. “They’re keeping my children awake.”

There. The second sentence was meant to seal it. She was still a little teary-eyed, but she raised her chin up with pride.

The boy gaped. He swallowed and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. His eyes fell to his computer screen and he moved his mouse around. A palm frond in the corner stirred under a current of air conditioning. Then the boy, widening his eyes with an idea, glanced over his shoulder at the door leading to the back room. Without looking Robina in the eye, he raised a finger into the air and mumbled that he would be back.

Minutes later, the hotel manager—a tiny Napoleon type—hurried out with the boy trailing behind. His walk was a military walk, stiff and straight, and when he halted before Robina, she could have sworn she heard the heels of his shoes click together.

“I understand the guests next door are disturbing you,” he said.

This was exactly what she needed, Robina thought. Authority. Despite its small size.

“They’re playing sex games and killing each other,” Robina whispered out. Despite the emptiness of the lobby, whispering felt like the right thing to do. “My children are listening.”

The manager’s brow furrowed into deep lines—lines created by years of thoughts and worries—and Robina thought about how much she appreciated severe personalities like that. He turned to the boy, who hovered behind him like a clumsy mantis, and said that he would be back.

And off they went, Robina and the manager, straight-legged and fast. Robina only wished that his legs were longer, since she feared that by the time they reached her floor, her neighbors would be all sexed out.

The elevator opened to the third floor and Robina and the manager stormed out. Robina's room sat near the end of the hallway, but as they passed a door to the left, a woman’s whimper leaped out. The duo stopped and looked each other in the eyes.

The manager cleared his throat. “Ma’am,” he said, “are you sure the sounds were not coming from down here?” His tone was as soothing and professional as the tone of a skilled gynecologist.

Robina’s thoughts and feelings—which had hovered in place with conviction moments before—spilled like skittles across the floor. She eyed the door with some anxiety. “Y—yes,” she said. “Yes, I have gone to their door myself.” She nodded up and down. She looked at the manager with eyes open wide.

The manager thought for a moment, rubbing his chin with a hand. He looked haggard in this light. Then, from the door to the right, a man’s voice yelled, “Mistress, I’m sorry,” and this was followed by a lash. Robina jumped against the manager’s side. Her breath slipped from her lungs and she hugged her body with her arms.

The manager’s hand flew to the small of her back. And that was it. That was enough to infuse him with certainty again, and he bulleted down the hall toward the door belonging to Robina’s neighbors. And poor Robina trailed behind like a child. She almost reached out a hand to grab the sleeve of his jacket.

At the door, male laughter sounded, and the manager pounded military-style. Then he clasped his hands together at his crotch and glared at the floor in wait. Robina stood behind him and off to the side. She felt shocked. She felt scarred. She felt the whispers of sex and the sounds of the night swirl around her—she was not sure if they were being released from the rooms or if they played from memory in her mind—and they moved breathily over her neck and body. She shivered and felt goosebumps on her arms. She wanted it to stop. She wanted to crawl out of her own flesh and drift somewhere in the energy of space. But there was no way out.

She glanced at the manager’s profile, and he looked grave, and she decided that she needed to be grave as well. She tightened her jaw and raised her chin a bit. She looked at him again to make sure she was getting the feeling right.

A police siren outside grew loud and passed.

And then the door swung open and a brunette in a short silk robe and high-heeled boots towered over them. Her hand clasped the neck of her robe closed over her breasts. Her upper thighs were thick and muscular and unapologetic. Robina noticed her proportions and crossed her arms over her small chest.

The woman eyed them both—she must have been laughing inside the room with the men, because her expression was a falling smile—and she looked the manager in the eyes and asked him what the matter was.

And Robina’s own door opened, and her husband, Andrew, walked out. Everyone turned to look. He was tall and lanky, and he rubbed his sleepy face with a hand. He wore their son Jack’s shirt and the pajama pants Robina had bought him for Christmas. He walked to the group and stood by Robina’s side.

The woman in the robe looked him up and down. Jack’s shirt was too small for him and it exposed the contours of his chest and shoulders. And some hard feeling lodged itself in Robina’s chest, and in a moment of courage, she linked her arm through Andrew’s and said to the woman, “We’re trying to sleep next door, ma’am.”

The woman looked over her shoulder into the room and laughed at whatever she saw. She turned back and said, “We’re all finished here, so you won’t hear a peep out of us anymore.” She placed her hands at the hips, and the neck of her robe opened to expose part of a large pale breast.

And Robina’s world sank into a hole in the ground. The manager was not saying anything—mute suddenly, despite all his severity—and Robina could not stand to glance at him, because she felt certain that he was taking the woman’s body in. And she felt sure that Andrew was too. And here she stood, alone between them, like the biggest fool in the world, and nasty bitterness rose to her throat like bile.

Then she called back the pictures she had found on Andrew’s computer after they married—pictures and pictures of open-legged women, women with their fingers between their legs, women on their knees with arched backs—and she remembered shutting the machine off with desperate fingers and being quiet at dinner for days. She remembered lying awake by his side at night. She remembered never feeling so alone in her life. And the whole world was like that—you could never truly know anyone—and everyone pretended decency and good intentions, and yet everyone allowed for these currents of perversion to run beneath it all. And the currents were like the jets of the jacuzzi Andrew pulled her into some nights. They made Robina uncomfortable because she felt them shoot out hard against her skin but all she saw on the surface were bubbles. She never knew of their location until her body ran across them, and then they surged against her, hard and relentless.

Author Portrait

Lana Spendl’s chapbook of flash fiction, We Cradled Each Other in the Air, is forthcoming from Blue Lyra Press in February 2017. Her work has appeared in The Greensboro Review, The Cortland Review, Hobart, Lunch Ticket, Quarter After Eight, storySouth, Fiction Southeast, Monkeybicycle, Gargoyle, and other magazines. She holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in Hispanic literature from Indiana University, where she served as the nonfiction editor to Indiana Review.

View the website of Lana Spendl