"She told me she thought you could help me! She said there'd been some no-shows! She took my name!" The receptionist had brought her down to the end of the check-in counter, away from the guests with actual reservations. Jane was trying not to make a scene, but her patience was all in tatters and she needed this bland clerk to accept some responsibility.
The young man nodded respectfully. "As I explained, when a party doesn't claim their room before 11:30, the room becomes available to others. The young woman you spoke to believed that to be the case when she took your name, but the party arrived just after that. It was a large party. I'm sorry, all we can do is call other hotels for you, and I tried them all, literally all of them. You see, there are two conventions in town, the accountants and the bird watchers. So naturally..."
"The ornithologists. It's the Northwestern Ornithological Society. And don't tell me about bed-and-breakfasts, because the other clerk already gave me that list, and I just spent the last forty-five minutes calling them. Literally."
"Did someone mention ornithologists? Are you having a problem with your room, Jane?" A smiling man in chinos and a corduroy field jacket stood at her shoulder, looking concerned.
"Oh hullo Arthur, not MY room I'm afraid. This gentleman has been explaining that I never really had a room here. Some bloody mix-up. You see, I was going to stay with the friend I flew up to visit, but she was having a row with her husband, absolutely impossible, and so... Well, I suppose I should just call the airport and try to get on something tonight, assuming that more than one flight a day goes to god-forsaken Merrimac Falls from here."
"Three do, actually." He looked at his watch. "But the last one left half an hour ago, unless it was delayed. We could check. But listen, I have this huge room with two double beds, and I never seem to use more than the one, if you don't mind sharing. The room. I'm perfectly safe. But if you aren't comfortable sharing with a male, there's a young woman from the University of Chicago, who I don't believe was leaving until tomorrow, probably not expecting company. I could call a colleague of hers who might know where she's staying, shall I?"
"No, don't bother, I wouldn't want to impose on some bird-watching woman I don't even know. They call you people bird watchers, did you hear that?" She glanced toward the clerk, but the lad had quickly slipped off to deal with paying customers.
"There's just one thing though..."
"One of the beds is full of twigs and leaves, so we'll have to share the other. You birdwatchers!"
"Ha ha. No. It's just that I have a sort of routine I do, I hate to impose. I practice meditation with yoga. I know it may sound weird, but whenever I go to a conference, on the evening of the last day I stay away from all the parties and nightlife, and spend the whole time in complete silence. It grounds me and puts a proper end to all the papers and plenary sessions and chatting up people you only see at conferences. There is nobody I would rather spend an evening talking with more than you, Jane. I really mean that. Actually, I happen to have the new Alice McDermott novel if you want something good to read, and there are plenty of watering holes nearby in case you get bored or uncomfortable."
Jane waved away his concerns. "No that's fine. I'm used to silent evenings, god knows, and we talk lots in the Faculty Club. I finished the McDermott last month myself actually. Billy was charming, but Child of My Heart just may be her best one yet. Don't worry about me, I'm as quiet as a little mouse."
Arthur nodded, peering at her earnestly. "If you're sure then. Is that all your luggage? Let me..."
She held onto the handle of her valise firmly. "Thanks, but I travel light. This thing is no bother."
"Well then. Let's get you settled, are you ready?"
Jane allowed him to lead her through the hotel's restrained but elegant lobby, and they boarded an elevator rich with polished brass and dark mahogany. We do indeed talk a lot in the faculty club, she reflected. And in the antiquarian bookstore we both frequent in town, and after performances that we both attend. No more so now than we did before Arthur's wife died two years ago, though. We were all good friends. He'd never given any sign of wanting to be more than that, but there was always a lot of warmth and mutual enjoyment when we two happened to meet. The man was certainly attractive, in a rugged outdoorsman sort of way. Is attractive. She hadn't sensed any sexual tension to their attraction, but Jane supposed she might have gotten in the habit of filtering that right out of awareness. Arthur was a zoologist who liked to refer to himself as a naturalist, and in some ways he seemed like a throwback to a period when that term wasn't quaint. She remembered the last conversation she'd had with him, just last week. They had met as they often did between classes, on the walkway leading to the Faculty Club. They had shared tea together, and she had asked him what he was working on these days. He'd described his re-analysis of Darwin's field observations and ideas about Galapagos Finches, in the light of competing perspectives among contemporary neo-Darwinists. He had explained the salient points succinctly and clearly enough to interest any reasonably intelligent layperson, including their typical undergraduates. It was no wonder he was a popular professor.
Then he had asked her about her own work. As a mathematician, she found that sort of question from non-mathematicians hard to answer. But when she began to speak of how rapid shifts in the boundaries between observable and non-observable structure were changing the way mathematicians thought about such things as fractals and Mandelbrott sets, she sensed a genuine interest. As she began to convey her own ideas, she also sensed that he enjoyed watching her talk more than he really followed the content. She did remember a comment he had offered at the time though. He said he thought undergraduate math departments in little colleges like their own mostly served would-be computer scientists, and very bright space cadets. He said he could tell she would strongly attract both sorts. In retrospect, she decided, since he didn't follow her content, that remark had been a flirt.
The elevator came up to their floor. "I saw you on the Piney Branch Nature Trail last weekend. I wanted to catch up with you, but I was a couple of hundred yards down-slope, and you were really pushing on up. I thought you might want to be alone. Do you hike a lot?" Jane nodded. "I love to hike," she told him. "I swim too, but hiking is my real love." Arthur smiled at her with approval. "There are some really great hikes around Merrimac Falls. Many are off the marked trails. I'd love to show you when we get back." Pause. "Ah, unless you really rather be alone in the woods, I can understand that if anybody can." "Not always," she assured him. "It might be nice." And it actually would, she realized. She was used to saying activities she didn't care to commit to "might be nice" whenever men suggested anything like a date. But in this case, she was surprised to discover, the idea was more than nice.
As they walked next to each other down the corridor, she became aware that Arthur was watching her. They paused at his door. "Before we go into silence, is there anything you want to say?" She shook her head. "Is there anything you want to ask me?" She shook her head again, and they smiled at each other. Let the silence begin, she said in her mind. He's established his boundaries clearly enough.
Closing the door behind her and latching it, Arthur walked over to a low bureau on the far side of the room, and lit a candle. The candle was set into a simple candleholder in the middle of what looked like a plain cotton place mat. And now the wards have been set too, she decided. Unless he intends that candle to establish a romantic mood? No, she thought, he wasn't even expecting me. Noting that his meditation cushion in the middle of his bedcover sat directly in front of the candle, she felt a sense of clarification, and an almost subliminal sense of relief. I'm a woman who needs contexts to be clear, she thought.
Jane placed her bag on a surface of plastic straps held in tension by chromed metal tubes. When she turned, Arthur had removed his shoes and placed them under his bed. She noted that the whole room was very neatly organized, with everything in its place. Indeed, nothing much of his was in view except the candle and the meditation cushion. Not like most men, she observed. She removed her own shoes and placed them under her bed. He opened the drawer next to his bed, and removed a small bundle of fabric. Jane took a copy of the Atlantic Monthly from her bag, adjusted her cushions, and lay on her bed with her back propped against the pillows. She opened the magazine. Arthur tossed a length of cloth on his cushion, and carried the rest into the bathroom. In a few moments, Jane heard the shower running. She began to read this month's short story.
.... There is more of this story ...