That night in Albuquerque, we practically fell into our hotel room. It was too late (or too early) to shower, and we were exhausted from the drive. All we could do was sleep. So we changed our pants but not our shirts and went to bed.
In the morning, mom and dad and the boys woke early. Dad had cracked the curtains just enough to let one white ray slice the muddled carpet. Still, the place was twilit to monochrome, smelling of sleep. Mom was downstairs at the continental breakfast, grazing among the miniature boxes of cereal. Most of my brothers, I assumed, were at the pool. They had a habit of swimming at strange hours. But one of them (I can’t remember who) sat in the corner at the desk, playing Tetris on his Gameboy. This left me --- almost --- alone in the room, a rare pleasure for a shy child. It gave me the chance to look at things undisturbed.
Hotel rooms contain (nearly without fail) the most inexplicable of luxuries: a rotund tub for ice and curious silvery or plastic tongs, beds piled four or six deep with pillows, sachets of tea and pouches of coffee no one ever seems to drink and, most wonderful to my childish mind at least, petite bottles of shampoo and lotion and the exalted hotel soap.
The hotel soap is, of all delightful objects, the neatest and least assuming. Two waxy paper wings enfold it, cleating substance nearly, biting slivers into its white body. By the time I was five, I was already well acquainted with the keen delight my little fingers took in unclasping heavy paper to lay bare the soap. There, under the too-white hotel lights, it would lie, perfectly pearlescent, prim to a square.
This morning, though, I was scandalized to find the soap already plundered, its heavy wrapper mostly torn away leaving a waterlogged corner still intact. Whoever had committed the crime had left the soap lying there, already used, girdled in bubbles.
I was hurt as only a child can be, and already felt myself nearly shaking with tears. My face was hot. No one had even asked me if I wanted to unwrap the soap --- never mind no one knew I liked to do it --- but this was theft. The soap-opener was a robber and a bully! I swore to find him and make him pay... I would show him what it felt like... How would he like it if I... But oh, hey! There’s a shower cap in here too...
(Thus is the immature mind easily derailed from contemplating retributive justice).
So I moved on quickly enough to the shower cap which I raked from its box and stretched over my unwashed ponytail.
Then I saw it: a message in the mirror. Couched in latent shower-fog, hedged in a lopsided heart it said, “I love you!”
King Belshazzar could not have been more spooked by the writing on the wall. I went red all over. Could this message possibly be for me? Who wrote it, and when and why? But, I felt, it was no one’s business I was standing here, in this bathroom, by myself, in the early morning. I wiped the message with a red hand and took off the shower cap, suddenly ashamed. It hadn’t occurred to me, of course, that the fingers that smudged the message into the mirror belonged either to mom or to dad, who had been in there taking showers 15 minutes before. Oh no, something more sinister must be at work.
A child’s mind is all too ready to misshape reality. It makes impossible leaps using whatever it fancies to fill the blanks of mystery. As a kid you think every rumble in the night a boogie man, a robber, a murderer. You pull blankets over your head, believing with all your might they will protect you. Everything unknown is dangerous.
But that’s not the whole truth, is it? Everything unknown is dangerous, yet everything unknown is, well, magical. A child’s first sensations are potent enough to vivify the whole world. This world, the one we see now with dimmed eyes, full of things too lightly looked over, too easily ignored, was once to us something very precious and haunting.
That’s why I remember childhood both with embarrassment and with something like longing. I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that, in growing up, we leave in the dust not only ignorance, but innocence.