Image © Luda Pahl 2018
|by Dennis Pahl||June 18, 2018|
Everything was going fine when I entered my hotel room. Everything was going fine, that is, until the moment I opened up my suitcase and discovered, inside, a man I’d never seen before. At least he didn’t look familiar. Barely taking notice of me, the man nonchalantly stood up, stretched his arms, brushed himself off, and stepped out. He almost tripped over the edge of the suitcase, but somehow managed at the last second to keep his balance, shyly smiling at his near-fall.
He was around forty, of average height, trim, and unshaven.
I stared in disbelief, shocked to realize that the man was wearing my good linen shirt, which I probably hadn’t put on since my last vacation to the islands. If that wasn’t enough, he was also wearing my khaki pants, along with my brand-new Oxford shoes, which I had kept wrapped in a plastic bag at the bottom of the suitcase. I had paid a lot for those shoes. More than I care to admit. And the shirt, my striped linen one, was a favorite of mine.
Needless to say, I wasn’t pleased.
“Hey,” I said. “What do you think you’re doing, wearing my clothes?” A man who has the audacity to wear someone else’s clothing without first getting permission has a lot to answer for, I thought.
He ignored my question, or pretended not to hear me. He was busy patting down his shirt, my shirt, trying to smooth out the creases on the sleeve. He looked a little dissatisfied that the shirt was not perfectly ironed, but seemed more or less content with his overall appearance. I didn’t know what to think. Was he simply borrowing my things, or did he intend to keep them?
Never mind how the man got into my suitcase. There are a hundred ways that could have happened. He could have climbed into it while it was moving along the conveyor belt on its way to the airplane’s storage compartment. Maybe he stole into it when my wife and I turned our backs for a few minutes to print out our boarding passes. Anything was possible. The man might have been an escape artist, capable of zipping up the suitcase from the inside, even of buckling it if he wanted to. Or perhaps, poor man, he was forced into the suitcase against his will, and somebody else zipped it up. As for his fitting into it, everybody knows there’s always a way to squeeze in one more thing if you try hard enough.
I asked again, as directly as possible, “Do you think it’s fair to take somebody else’s belongings? Is that how we act in the civilized world?”
“Actually,” the man said, fixing the shirt collar, “your clothes look pretty good on me, don’t you think? They fit almost perfectly.”
“I was glad you packed a flashlight,” he went on. “It was invaluable when it came to choosing the right outfit. I didn’t have to search too long.”
“Is that so?” I said.
“And by the way, I also enjoyed some of the books you had in there.”
“Thank you,” I said automatically.
“I read most of the stories in the Julio Cortazar collection, and found them quite compelling. I liked especially the one about the couple who go on vacation to an exotic country and stay at a bungalow on the beach, with palm trees swaying in the light breeze of the trade winds.”
I watched as he began to unpack some of my stuff—my razor, my can of shaving cream, and other toiletries—and then walked over to the bathroom. “It was a rather long trip,” he explained. “I hope you don’t mind if I freshen up a bit.”
Did I mind if he freshened up? I was astonished by his utter lack of decency in taking my things into the bathroom, as if I was supposed to think it was normal. I was wondering how my wife was going to react to all this. I didn’t want to see her upset. I had left her, just a while before, talking to the receptionist at the front desk, and I guessed she was still there, finding out everything she could about the hotel’s spa. She had a habit of becoming quickly familiar with unknown people, and I knew it might take an extra long time before she came to the room. Since we arrived, I’d been itching to go to the hotel’s beach and to dive into the warm waters of the Caribbean, and I thought of doing so without waiting much longer.
In the meantime I left the room and circled the hotel complex. Maybe by the time I got back to the room the strange man would come to his senses and leave my things alone. Maybe he’d go away. But nothing of the sort happened. When I returned, the man from the suitcase was just getting out of the bathroom, clean-shaven and smelling of my cologne. I surmised he had also taken a shower, and I tried to repress the thought that, while cleaning himself up, he might have used my toothbrush.
I couldn’t stand still. I circled the complex again and this time I saw my wife, from a distance, talking to one of the hotel housekeepers. When I finally got back in the room the man was busy making tea and asked whether I’d like to join him for a cup.
“No, that’s alright,” I said. “I’m not much in the mood for tea.”
Not able to compose myself, and not feeling very comfortable in the man’s presence, I walked around the hotel again. This time I picked up a magazine and went into the gift shop and bought a new swimsuit and a new toothbrush. When I came back again to the room, I found that my wife was already there. She was staring curiously at the stranger, who was sitting on a couch, a cup of tea in his hands, peering at one of my books.
“What’s that man doing in your outfit?” she asked.
I didn’t know what to answer. “He’s wearing it.”
I said to my wife, Bernice, that the man claimed he looked good in my clothes. “He said they fit him well.”
“That may be true,” she said, sizing the man up. “But wasn’t that linen shirt my birthday gift for you two years ago?”
“And the shoes…they were quite expensive.”
“True enough,” I replied.
I was getting impatient and, while I wasn’t happy with what the man had done, I was tired of thinking about it. It was wearing me out. I turned to Bernice and told her that if she hadn’t been talking for so long to everybody she met, we’d be on the beach already. She replied, somewhat angrily, that if I wanted to go to the beach myself, I could. “It’s up to you,” she said. She would stay in the room and try to cope with the circumstances.
I knew Bernice was upset, but there was little I could do. Taking one of the hotel towels from the bathroom, I went out to the beach and started to collect seashells of different sizes and colors, as well as oddly shaped corals I knew Bernice would like. I put them on a beach chair and then headed toward the crystal clear sea and dove right in. Swimming, I felt refreshed, almost renewed, and as I rode on a wave I began to wonder how Bernice was getting along with the man from the suitcase. It suddenly dawned on me that the man resembled a younger version of myself—when I had more hair on my head, was trimmer, and had not been as near-sighted as I was now. It was a thought I dwelled on for a moment as I came out of the water.
When I returned to the room, the corals and shells wrapped in my towel, I was surprised to see nobody there. I saw only the suitcase lying in the corner, empty. The man who had stepped out of it disappeared, leaving behind only a few items of clothing for me. My wife left only a note, which read: “Philip and I have taken another room.”
That’s all she wrote.
Standing there in my wet swimsuit I saw the clothes on the bed. I dropped the towel I was holding and some seashells fell out onto the floor. I went to the balcony and sat in a chair. It was hot out and I came back into the coolness of the room. I put on a pair of beige slacks, which were a bit snug. The Hawaiian shirt and sandals fit me without a problem. I called the front desk and told the receptionist to have my luggage picked up as soon as possible. The bellman, I made it clear, could just come into the room and take it.
I stared at the empty suitcase for a while and paced around the room. I don’t recall what I was thinking. I was probably wondering if any of my books were around, left on a table perhaps, or on a chair. They weren’t. I came closer to the suitcase, stared at it some more, and then promptly got into it. I just plopped myself down. It was easier than I had thought. I didn’t even find it difficult to zip it up from the inside. True, it was a little cramped inside but I soon got used to it. Lying on my side I felt something bothersome in the pocket of my trousers. It seemed like a hard piece of cardboard and I imagined it was a passport. I reached in and adjusted it and felt much better.
I wasn’t sure where the hotel staff, once they got hold of the suitcase, would deliver it—to another room or to another hotel or to another country. It didn’t much matter. I was glad though that, wherever it would arrive, I wouldn’t have very much to unpack. People, when traveling, always mistakenly believe they need to pack more things than they do.
About three days later my suitcase arrived on the other side of the world. At least that’s what I supposed. When it was finally delivered to a room, I heard a woman’s voice. I recognized her accent, and knew a little of the language she spoke. She sounded excited. As she unzipped the suitcase, light flooded in. I had to shield my eyes. I got up, brushed myself off, and stepped out of the suitcase. All she said was, “Thank God my luggage has finally arrived! I thought I’d lost it forever.”
There was joy in the woman’s voice, and mischief in her smile. I looked around the room. It seemed like a comfortable place to stay, at least for the time being. Outside the window was the turquoise sea. There were blue skies and hardly any clouds. The tops of the palm trees were swaying in the light breeze of the trade winds. I thought to myself that, yes, it’s always a good idea not to pack too many things when you’re going somewhere. It’s always good to travel light.
Dennis Pahl is a professor of English at Long Island University. Aside from publishing articles on Poe and Henry James, he enjoys composing folk songs, snorkeling in the Caribbean and, of course, dreaming up stories on the subway. His absurd fiction has appeared in Confrontation and in a few illustrated chapbooks with Prehensile Pencil-Feral Press. Three of his stories have been made into short movies, and his latest production, “The Museum of Lost Things,” based on his story by that name, has been nominated for best short comedy at the Madrid International Film Festival. He composed and performed the movie’s theme song “You Came Around” and has a music video tie-in to the film. With his wife, the collage artist Luda Pahl, he has also co-written a book of cartoons.
Born in Russia and educated in the Republic of Georgia, Luda Pahl is an artist, dress designer, book illustrator, translator and art teacher living in New York. She received an M.A. degree in Art and Design from the Academy of Art in Tbilisi, Georgia, and attended the Parsons School of Design. She has been awarded a grant for her collages from the Queens Council on the Arts. Her work has been exhibited in numerous galleries in New York City, and in Monmouth Museum, and her illustrations of prose and poetry have appeared in chapbooks published by Feral Press.