Maybe things have changed, but back when I was a drummer in a wedding band most places in America were accessible, even the supposed private places. All you had to do was walk like you knew where you were and what you were doing. I liked testing this idea in hotels, where we performed countless, four-set gigs in banquet rooms and lounges. During our breaks, when we played pre-taped music through our PA, I would leave my sticks on the pocked skin of my snare and start walking. I would squeeze between the tables of guests and wedding party members and slip into the stark service corridor. From there, I would join other parties or business conferences without being questioned, even when I helped myself to food, or lifted a glass of champagne from a waiter’s tray and raised it to the bride. My clothing—sport coat, collared shirt, tie, grey pants—worked like an invisibility cloak, as did the relaxed, even bored, expression I wore on my face. Such is the power of the typical and commonplace.
Moving on, I would pass unnoticed through the raucous hive of the kitchen, observing panicked line cooks and angry chefs, impatient waiters pacing on the rubber mats. I’d weave through tables of the hotel restaurant, cross the lobby and duck into the nearest elevator. I would randomly choose a floor and, when the doors parted with a ding, set out down the endless corridors, scanning for a door that hadn’t been entirely shut, or had even been propped open by someone waiting for a visitor or room service. If I found one, I would simply walk in. Should I be confronted, questioned, I would be ready with feigned confusion and drunkenness and foreign-ness, a slurred flurry of accented apologies as I backed out and stumbled onward, maybe running for the stairwell if they seemed unconvinced.
Once I walked in on a woman who was lying in bed, fully clothed and wearing her shoes, talking on the phone. She squinted at me and said, Ray, there’s a man standing in my room. Another time, I walked in on a couple of kids watching TV. They looked at me and waited for some kind of explanation. I asked them if they were ready for some food. They nodded. What? I asked. Sub sandwiches? Pizza? What do you want? Cauliflower? Of course, they picked pizza. Pizza it is, I said, then stepped out, closing the door behind me.
This all led up to the day I entered a room and heard the shower running. I walked into the bathroom and listened as someone—a man—hummed a song from Fiddler on the Roof from behind the curtain, as steam filled the room and obscured the mirror. I was just a thin dark smear in the glass. The man was a big guy, I knew, because his boxer shorts were on the floor and they were fucking enormous. There was a pup tent worth of cloth there. They were covered with a pattern of ladybugs. The owner had to be what they call morbidly obese. I sat on the toilet and thought of the many things I could do to this man. I thought I could teach him a lesson but I wasn’t sure of the lesson he needed to learn. The obvious thing to call out—to judge him for—was his size, but that would mean assuming a certain lack of self-control when I knew from talk shows that it really could have been due to glands.
I decided to take a glass from the sink and fill it with cold water. Then I lifted it up, over the top of the shower curtain, and threw the water down at him, before making for the door. I heard him suck in his breath, the squeak of flesh against wet tile and a yelp, the shower curtain being ripped from the rod as he fell with a bone-jarring thud you could feel in the floor.
In seconds, I was halfway down the corridor with the glass still in my hand, heart flapping in my chest like a flat tire. Jesus Christ! I was pretty sure I had killed a guy, just like that. I turned the corner and set the glass down on a tray someone had put out for pick up, then I charged down the stairs, thinking, It was just a glass of cold water! I didn’t even think he’d feel it and why did he leave his room unlocked anyway? I crashed through a door on another floor and followed the hallway around to the elevator, then caught one that carried me back to the lobby. I stood there trying to catch my breath, thinking, damn, I should go back up there and see what happened. But it struck me that I no idea what floor he was on, since I had randomly chosen it. Nor could I retrace my steps and recall how many flights of stairs I had taken before the floor where I had caught the elevator. I had no choice but to get back to the banquet room, where we were only minutes away from starting up the second set.
I climbed behind my kit just as Mitch was ducking under the strap of his bass and Daryl was snapping off the electronic tuner and plugging in. Terry was fading out the pre-recorded music. Daryl nodded in my direction and I clicked off an easy-going pace for our usual second-set starter, “Black Orpheus”. We moved into it at a light trot, all high hats and rim clicks, with Terry on the shaker. A few dancers, older folks, made their way to the floor. It wasn’t the easiest song to dance to; it called for some Latin in the bones, some Catholic marrow. Deep inside you have to have a fear of hell, but also a desire to dip your toe in the occasional lake of fire. I have it, which is why I can even play the required beat. It’s how I got hired for the band, even though I rarely spoke in their presence, never hung out, never laughed over after-gig beers and ditched them during the breaks. What I had is the right feel. Everyone can play the rock stuff, the pop, even the light jazz. But you just can’t fake the Latin.
As we worked through the set, I told myself, There is not an obese man lying face up in a bathtub somewhere upstairs. There is not water falling into his gaping mouth and unblinking eyes from the showerhead. Instead, there’s big dude standing at the mirror brushing his teeth, or combing his wet hair, trying for a clean part. His scalp is white. Sure, he has a bruised hip, but he’s okay. Fell in the shower, is what he’ll tell anyone who inquires about his limp. Water went cold.
I tried to focus on this version of the what-could-be, but then allowed the proceedings of the wedding reception to distract me. Or, rather, my contempt for the proceedings made its usual demands on my attention. It’s true that I despised wedding receptions, having observed hundreds of them from behind my cymbals and toms. To be married in this country, I had come to believe, you have to pass through a grotesque pantomime of revelry.
What got to me isn’t that every party is exactly the same in terms of flow and agenda—best man’s toast, first dance, dollar dance, garter toss, bouquet toss and so on—but that the emotions sparked by these hollow rituals are identical from one reception to the next. The feelings, which are so eagerly acted out, seemed to come with the event template. I got it in my head that not only the wedding day was an elaborate falsehood, but so was the marriage that followed, not to mention the courtship that led up to it—all scripted and staged.
I have always understood that there is a certain freedom in observing rigid formats. But even the Mass has the Homily. And songs, despite the seemingly confining verse/chorus/verse flow, have that window of expression called the solo. I suppose that window in a wedding reception is the best man’s toast. But so often they seem to have been provided by the same source, maybe a website that sells speeches written by the same hacks who write gift cards. No, most receptions move through their over-planned course without an instance of improvised expression. Only an abundance of alcohol can spring some surprises, but this reception was dry.
Measure by measure, song by song, I plodded through, looking on with contempt as I pounded out the jungle drums solo on “Wipe Out,” tapped out a country waltz, or set up the bouquet toss with a buzz roll. Inevitably, the best man danced with the groom—how crazy! The bride danced with a small child—how adorable! And, during the garter toss, the groom produced an oversized pair of granny panties out from under the bride’s dress—ta-da! Never seen that one before.
At that point, we took another break. I was back out in the lobby, trying to come up with a way to find the guy I might have killed. I had fifteen minutes before we had to start the third set. I scanned the lobby for any signs of emergency response. It had been about an hour, so they could have already came and left, rolling out a mound of a man on a gurney, his lifeless face concealed under a sheet. I walked over to the concierge and listened in as a white-haired man in a hotel uniform gave a woman directions to a nearby Japanese steakhouse. I want those guys who throw their knives around, she said. There was nothing in the exchange that hinted at a tragedy in the hotel. I strolled past the registration desk, trying to think up a question that would provoke a telling response. Nothing I came up with would keep me out of the mix. If something had happened, my question would certainly sound suspicious, no matter how I phrased it. The clerks’ faces told me nothing.
I sat down on the edge of a fountain in the middle of the lobby floor. The hotel itself was a glass oasis in a broad, smog-filled valley of scrubland. High above, the white sun streamed though an array of skylights. Water burbled down an arrangement of fake lava rocks, feeding a koi-filled pool. The fish came over, crowding the water before me in their shining armor and bloodless flesh, flashing the obscene openings of their mouths.
It was a stupid situation. The best thing to do, I thought, is convince myself that the dude is all right and get on with my day. But the guy’s yelp had gotten to me. Such a pitiful sound, especially since it was followed by a bone-rattling body slam. I could still feel the force of it in my teeth. It was the only real thing that had happened to me in a long time and I wasn’t even sure what had happened. The event was open-ended, unresolved, and it gnawed at me like a sneeze that never comes. There was an undeniable rush, too, which was a feeling that, back in those days, I was always seeking to invite into the picture with some kind of easy transgression: shoplifting, trespassing, vandalism, adultery, whatever. This was big, though. Bigger. It was very possible that something of meaningful consequence had happened.
Then, just like that, it appeared nothing of the sort had occurred. I can’t deny the surge of relief I felt when I saw him: an exceedingly heavy man wearing a massive beige suit. He seemed to be coming from the elevator tower that led to the rooms, lumbering across the lobby like a bear. He walked past me and I scanned for signs. I checked the hair. Was it wet? Didn’t look like it, but it would have dried by now anyway. He didn’t limp or wince or hold himself in a way that indicated an injury. I took in his face, which was half concealed by a dark, thick beard. It was open, friendly, and his eyes looked smart and alert. He had a high forehead and thinning hair, which was neatly combed to the side. His double chin hung down over his collar, concealing the knot of his orange tie. His hands were bloated mitts. He walked past me like a puffed-up Lazarus, a supernaturally unstoppable mass that maybe fell through the bottom of the tub, crashed through three more floors—a meteorite of meat—then stood, dusted himself off, and started the journey back to his room.
Then again, this could be a completely different big dude. I fell in behind him, hoping to see something that would confirm my hopes. A whiff of cheap hotel shampoo would help. A glimpse of a nasty bruise, or maybe his boxer shorts were riding high and I’d catch a glimpse of ladybug ornamented waistband. I was so intent on spotting the subtlest sign that I mindlessly followed him into a massive conference room, where people were sitting in row after row of seats. The seats were a little too close together for my guy, so he took two. I filed in next to him, herded along by the flow of attendees all eager to claim a seat before a broad stage. We sat shoulder-to-shoulder, his thigh oozing over the line, pressing against mine. His hand sat on his lap like a small cake, ring-finger cinched in at the base by a gold band. I studied it for signs, took in his heat and, yes, soapy odor.
Soon the lights dimmed and a man in a suit appeared on stage, backed by a red furnace-like glow. He shouted a series of tired, self-help statements in the second person, claiming to tell us what we want: the real, the whole experience, the sense of being alive. He had people on their feet, fists pumping. He told us to claim all this and more, and to start by embracing the person next to you. Because there is nothing else.
Holy shit, I said, like I had just woken up. What am I doing here?
I stood and tried to make my escape, but I was enveloped in my possible-victim’s embrace. Surrounded by his being as he pulled me in close, smiling broadly as his arms locked around me. His beard scratching at my cheek and his breath warming my ear lobe. The third set, I thought about saying, as a way to excuse myself. I’m a drummer for the band next door. But I said nothing, arms hanging at my side.
The man on the stage urged us on. Hold it, he said quietly into the microphone. Hold it, hold it, hold it.
The big man hugged me harder, clinging to me as I imagined Terry fading down the pre-recorded music on the PA. Daryl unplugging from the electronic tuner as Mitch looks back at the kit, ready to give me the nod. I tried to pull away, but my partner in all this pulled me even closer, so that I could feel his heart beating against my chest, softly at first, then like a battering ram. It was like someone was throwing a basketball against my chest. It knocked the wind out of me but I didn’t push away, it was such a relief to feel.
Hold it. Hold it and mean it, the voice told us.
I stood there for what felt like forever, eventually bringing up my arms and holding on long after, it seemed, the wedding reception next door had ended and the honeymooners were probably locked in their own embrace somewhere upstairs.