THEY USED THAT WORD FOR HIM, those two words rather, when they took down his details. They had to consult each other, have a little powwow about it. Marianne with her clipboard and that long spangled hair. Mark with his skull’s face and those ridiculous earmuffs. They stood against the windows that looked out onto the grounds, their dark heads bent together; Marianne drumming the glass with ruby fingernails and Mark sighing and shrugging his shoulders.
The boy sat and waited, huge, invisible. The lobby was dark and stagnant after the heat of the day, and he felt sure he was contributing to the smell. There was no air conditioner. There was nothing much at all. The check-in desk was a thin table sunk in the middle from the weight of the files piled high upon it. There was no computer, or vases of flowers, or piped music. There were garden chairs stacked against the walls, but, so far, no sign of a garden. The floor was red-tiled, uneven, covered in a fine layer of grit from outside. He had bounced uncomfortably on those tiles on the way in: the taxi driver, a large amused Frenchman, had propelled his wheelchair across the lobby with the air of one who had now, finally, seen it all.
A dying wasp was crawling along the windowpane close to Mark’s head. The boy watched it with interest. The wasp’s sputtering advances, its rising and falling, the way it flung itself feebly and angrily against the glass. It filled him with a dreamy calm. Already he felt that this new place, with its strange evening sunlight and fetid air—would swallow him whole. Already the old world was slipping away from him, the world of airports and laptops, and further away still, his school and New York. All was now this lobby, and these two—this woman—in front of him, on whom he had staked all his hopes.
‘I’m just really tired,’ he said, when they were done talking. ‘Can somebody show me where the elevator is? I’d like to go to my room.’ They exchanged glances then. ‘Ah,’ said Marianne, widening her eyes at him. ‘Ah, well the thing is,’ she said.
‘The thing is,’ said Mark, ‘we’re not really sure what you expected when you signed up for here. This is Europe, you know? This is an extremely old building. And it doesn’t actually have an elevator. Or rather,’ he said, swivelling around to Marianne and beetling his brows at her, ‘it doesn’t have a functioning elevator. We’re still working on getting it fixed. These things take time. You know? It’s not so easy with the language barrier. These men – ‘ Mark turned to the window, shrugging sadly.
‘These men don’t like to be rushed. They’re doing the best they can.’
The three of them stared out the window. The boy in his wheelchair, Marianne in her dancer’s pose, Mark all bundled up in his coat. The boy had never seen a man wear earmuffs before. Blue ones. They looked, the boy thought, fucking dumb. You do know it’s September, he nearly said to Mark. And it’s France. And that it’s hot. But if Mark looked dumb then how did he look? He was forgetting himself. His expectations were always too high. He had to strain his neck and lean forward in his chair to see out.
There were four men digging outside. The place was a mess. The churned-up muck had revealed a delta of orange pipes around which the workers were picking their way hopelessly. Their scraggy biceps were shining with sweat. They seemed to be working silently, but it was hard to tell.
‘Did I tell you,’ said Mark, ‘that the workers refused payment?’
He shook that skull’s head, sad again. ‘A bottle of whiskey from the bar was all they wanted. Can you believe that? Incredible.’
Beside him, Marianne nodded slowly. The boy shifted around in his seat. He could feel his ass spilling out the sides of the wheelchair. He had a terrible feeling that he might cry.
‘Mark?’ he said. ‘How am I supposed to get up the stairs?’
They both looked down at him. ‘I don’t do stairs,’ the boy told them. ‘I don’t do stairs.’ He was sure he looked proud of himself, but he wasn’t. He was just trying to not start bawling his head off, so he kept his face nice and tight. Sucked in his cheeks real hard.
‘Right, I see what you mean,’ said Mark.
‘Yeah’, said Marianne, gazing back out the window. ‘I think that could be a problem.’
Marianne de Montaigne. A decade ago she had been the most famous yogini in Europe. Hounded by the Christian right when she claimed in a US interview that she could levitate. She got into drugs for a while, and after that, into dance. Now she was back in France and peddling her YogaDance Fit centre to American tourists. She lounged by the window, two hands behind her back, one foot stuck out before her. Degas’ surly ballerina. He’d spent a long time tracking her down.
‘Okay then,’ she said, turning away from the workmen. ‘Let’s figure this out. Let’s do the maths. It can’t be that difficult. Let’s see—James, right? Which room have we assigned you to?’
Marianne started to flip through the chart on her clipboard but Mark touched her elbow and took it from her. ‘It’s just, you know,’ he said. ‘We’re all trying to figure this out right now. It’s a little challenging. It’s all a little— aaaghh!—you know what I mean? At the minute. We’re getting there. When we’re done, this centre will be the best in Europe. I guarantee it. Right now though? It’s, uh, it’s a challenge.’
Mark. Marianne’s husband. Wearer of blue earmuffs. Aged somewhere between thirty-five and sixty, hard to tell. The boy listened to him intently. He needed to be very, very, sure he was not going to misunderstand anything. Because that’s what seemed to be important when you were morbidly obese like the boy. You needed to understand things. You needed to know exactly what was happening and you needed people to stick to the plan. And if they made arrangements then you needed to know about those arrangements because as soon as you heard about them you had to figure out what those arrangements really meant and what they really meant for you, for all four hundred and sixty-five pounds of you. And if it said in the brochure and on the website that there was an elevator in the hotel then you assumed that meant there was a working elevator in the hotel and that the hotel was actually a hotel and not some dilapidated fucking schoolhouse with muck and pipes spewing up over the lawn.
They gave him a room on the ground floor in the end, a snug little room off the kitchen. Marianne’s private yoga room. She had to move all her stuff upstairs to the second floor. She was running up and down the stairs all afternoon, dripping bits of scarves and jewellery behind her. He could tell she wasn’t the tidiest, Marianne. He didn’t mind. At least her room smelled fine. She had cleaned it out fairly well but she had forgotten to vacuum, so there were bits of lint and fluff left all over the floor. She’d been, he thought, pretty nice about it all. She didn’t make too big a fuss about changing rooms the way it seemed Mark wanted to. Also she looked more interested than disgusted when she helped manoeuvre him in through the door.
‘Will you actually not fit?’ she kept saying. ‘You’re a big guy, aren’t you? What if we tried sideways? Or diagonal? What if you tuck that in a bit just there?’
He kept telling her that it was fine, it was no problem, he could just get out and fold up the damn wheelchair himself. But, ‘No no no,’ she insisted. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll figure this out.’
It was a cheerless dormitory cell. It was probably the smallest room he’d ever been in. ‘Tell me it’s en suite’, he said, as he and Marianne and the chair finally jolted shudderingly into the room. He had his eyes closed, hoping to God, praying hard in spite of everything. But he already knew that it wasn’t. There was a narrow bed and a desk, a small window set in the far wall with an orange curtain dangling down, and an old wardrobe whose door unhinged itself to swing slowly out to greet them. There was wallpaper on the walls, or there had been wallpaper once: bunches of tragic violets blooming in patches above the bed and all along the back wall.
Marianne ducked out into the hall to retrieve his suitcase and she heaved it up on to the bed, sweating a little. ‘One suitcase for the whole four weeks?’ she said. ‘Christ, you travel light.’ She collapsed herself down on the bed and then she looked at him and her mouth opened in the widest biggest smile he’d ever seen.
‘So James,’ she said, ‘ever done yoga before? Or dance? Ever done dance?’ Her smile grew bigger and bigger as she looked him up and down. She was taking it all in, the red-sweater flesh drooping out the sides of the wheelchair, the gluey rolls of his face and neck.
‘Don’t even bother,’ he told her. ‘Believe me, I’ve heard it all.’
Marianne laughed quietly, her eyes staring up at the ceiling. ‘I believe you,’ she said.
‘I don’t know, James,’ she continued, rolling off the bed. ‘I just do not know.’ She flicked her eyes around at him. They were thin and quick and brown, spiderlashed and stealthy. ‘Tell me,’ she said, kicking at the mattress with a stockinged foot. ‘How much do you weigh? Because this bed isn’t going to hold you.’
He breathed out hard. His face seemed to be twitching involuntarily, doing tap dances. ‘It might’, he said. ‘It probably will.’
‘No, it won’t.’ Marianne kept watching him. Her hands were on her hips. The skinny black pants she was wearing had hitched themselves up around her calves. Slowly she backed herself away into the far corner of the room, creeping inch by inch with her butt sticking out. Then she took a running jump and canonballed onto the bed. Both Marianne and the suitcase bounced. They flew about three foot into the air, and, ‘Ahahahaha,’ she screeched, ‘ahahahahaha!’
Marianne was a real laugher. She laughed at everything. Everything was funny. Everything deserved her laughter. She had buckets of the stuff on tap. He didn’t mind. Jesus Christ, he did not mind.
‘Good God, James,’ said Marianne dramatically, when she had stopped laughing and was stretched like a starfish over the bed, ‘I bet you don’t know what’s hit you, coming here.’
‘There’s no en suite?’
‘Nope. Bathroom and shower room up the hall. Ah, but there is,’ she announced, getting up to roll to her feet, ‘a little wash-hand basin just here. See?’ It was concealed behind the lump of a wall that jutted out by the wardrobe, dividing the room. ‘See?’ she said again, pointing kindly. It had taken Marianne, her thick woollen socks rasping on the floorboards, exactly three steps to cross the entire length of the cell.
‘We don’t supply towels,’ she said, swaying back and forth on her heels. ‘I can loan you one tonight if you want, but you’ll need some for the first class in the morning.’
‘That’s okay’, he said. ‘I brought my own.’
‘Great. Mr Organised. Anything else you’d like to know? Anything you need help with?’
She hesitated. ‘You don’t, ah, need help going to the toilet or anything?’
‘Uh, no. That’s great. I’m great.’
‘Great!’ She patted him on the shoulder on her way out. When she reached the door he called her back.
‘I was wondering,’ he said, ‘if you still do it.’
Marianne stood paused in the doorframe, baptised in dust from thesudden evening light. She regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. Thenshe burst out laughing.
‘D’you know what, mate?’ she said. ‘I like you.’
He could hear her thundering her way back up to the second floor. He pictured her dancer’s back, her spine winding and looping all the way up those long lonely stairs, that flashy black hair flopping down on her shoulders. He had not climbed stairs in living memory. They were mysterious to him. Strange portals. The way people disappeared up and down them. That time alone, on the way to somewhere, that transition, that journey—he had no idea what that was like.
So Marianne was wrong about the bed. It did hold him. The mattress sunk deep into the bed frame when he settled on it but it held his weight, no problem. He figured there was probably a good chance he had lost a couple pounds already, what with the stress of the journey and the exhausting heat of the day. He lay on the bed, breathing heavily, and hot evening light seeped in through the orange curtain and soothed him.
He had finally met Marianne. He had laid eyes on her, spoken with her, been pushed around—literally—by her, and she had sat on his bed. When she left him alone there was a sadness in him that she had not recognised him, had not seen in him the potential he’d felt sure she was destined to see. He had wanted to tell her. He had wanted to tell her that he understood. To tell her that he had done it, too; that he did it every night in his sleep. That he did not know how he did it, or why, but that he knew he could do it, that there was still so much he could learn.
Outside his window, Mark was arguing with the workmen in French. The boy fell asleep for some moments. When he woke, he was doing it again: he was floating over the bed, suspended in the hot glistening space of the room. The wheelchair, folded up, was leaning against the wall, as forgotten and inanimate as the garden chairs in the lobby. The air in the room was hot and orange, humming with the strains of the voices outside. Mark sounded angry; Mark was angry and the boy was calm, and this made him very happy. He was as peaceful and calm on his mattress of air as a dead beached whale on the sands. He was so calm that he felt he could float all the way up through the ceiling, up through the first floor and beyond; onwards, upwards to the second floor, to where she sat in the heat of the evening. Perhaps she was in her new room, doing it now, just like him. He laughed at the thought, at the bond that they shared. She would see it eventually, he was sure. Perhaps he would not even have to tell her. Perhaps she would just recognise it in him, she would see him for who he was. I told you, he would say, I don’t do stairs. Outside, the voices grew louder and louder. A flurry of French and a dull clink as a glass bottle hit a stone wall. It smashed in a glittering shower of sound; Mark yelled up at his wife. Two stories below her, the boy floated, a beatific smile on his face.