9 January, 2017
When Claire traveled, which she did often, she left a message in the bathroom of every hotel room she slept in, for the eyes of whoever stayed there after she had gone. She would write it on the mirror, in big letters, with a bar of soap, smearing the soap thickly onto the mirror, then gently cleaning most of it off, with the care and precision of an art historian cleaning a painting, or anyone cleaning something that actually mattered. When she was done, it looked as if there were nothing written on the mirror, but left behind was a residue that would be invisible until the next guest took a shower, filling the room with steam that revealed to him the hidden message. That person, whoever he was, would pull the shower curtain back and see what Claire had left for him to read.
Sometimes Claire would write just one word, whichever came to mind when she had the idea to write a word, like LIAR, maybe, or PONTOON, or NOUGAT, or RAPIST.
More often, she wrote entire phrases, like LEAVE IT BEHIND and IT MIGHT BE BENIGN.
YOU KILLED THEM, she wrote on a hotel room mirror in Ann Arbor, to excite the conscience of whoever saw the words she wrote. Who knew? Maybe the next guest was an actual murderer. Maybe he would be moved by her message to confess his crimes to the authorities.
He might be guilty of a figurative murder. Maybe he had killed someone’s hopes and dreams.
She’d had the idea to start doing this thing one morning in Sacramento, when she’d emerged from the shower to see streaks left in the mirrorsteam. The streaks she saw did not form words, they were mere streaks. But she formed words there, after searching online for the best method for writing words on a bathroom mirror that would be invisible until the onset of steam. The best method involved the use of soap, said the internet. And so she used soap.
The first words she wrote, in that Sacramento hotel bathroom, weren’t much to look at. She wrote CLAIRE RULES.
It was the first thing she’d thought of, when she had the idea to write something.
It did not communicate much. It communicated CLAIRE RULES.
She knew that sometimes the women of housekeeping must have cleaned her words off the hotel room mirrors by washing the mirrors as soon as she was gone. She also felt confident that at least some of the time they didn’t clean the mirrors. So often, when she stepped out of the shower herself, streaks were left there, providing no meaning but offering evidence that someone had touched the mirror with greasy fingers and the mirror had not since then been cleaned.
At a Radisson in Cleveland, she left behind a mirror message that read, HOPE IS BAD, which she hoped would be seen by someone who knew a woman named Hope. It wasn’t what she meant when she first wrote it; she had only meant to communicate that hope is bad, not for any particular reason.
In the bathroom of a room on the 4th floor of a Hilton in Chicago, she was met with a mirror much larger than the ones she was used to. Surely, she’d thought, when she’d seen the hotel on her itinerary, there has been some mistake. This room is too much. It cost too much. Just look at this mirror. SURELY, she wrote on the mirror, THERE HAS BEEN SOME MISTAKE.
Claire traveled often. She had to, for her job, which was to travel to different offices across the country and hire people on behalf of whatever company had hired her to deliver the news. She was an intermediary, a middlewoman, a professional hirer. Her job was to give good news to people who needed good news—not to give them jobs, but to tell them they now had jobs. She was a messenger who only ever delivered one message, to many people.
She liked her job. She got it when the recession ended, just as she finished college and people started getting hired again, usually for less money than they’d made when they lost their jobs at the start of the recession.
She never thought for very long about what message she would write. It would have been contrary to the spirit of the thing. She had to write the first thing that came into her mind when she saw the mirror, just before she wrote on it. If she did it any other way, it would mean that she was taking the whole enterprise too seriously. It would mean that what had started as a lark had become a hobby.
Claire had no hobbies. Her only hobby was not about to be the writing of messages on mirrors that were meant for strangers she would never see.
And she wasn’t the only one who did this thing with mirrors. She learned as much after months of mirror writing, at a La Quinta in Kansas City.
She took two showers in every hotel room she stayed in: one as soon as she arrived, usually, to get the plane grease off her skin, the other the next morning, before she left to do her work and left on a plane later in the day, to whatever city someone was to be hired in next.
In Kansas City, she was especially eager to leap into the shower, for a woman on the plane, or a man on the plane, had left some hand sanitizer on the handle of the door to the airplane bathroom, for the next plane bathroom patron to deal with. It had gotten on her fingers, on her way out of the facilities, and she was deeply worried that it had traveled to other parts of her body, when she later put her hand on her neck or her leg or her face. Claire was no germophobe; she was reasonable; but she had no proof that what had been on the door handle was in fact hand sanitizer. As soon as she’d felt something on the handle, she’d wanted to go back in and wash her hands again, and again and again, but another woman had already pushed past her and shut the door.
JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS AS THEY ARE, the Kansas City mirror said.
She hadn’t written it. She was not the author of JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS AS THEY ARE.
What she had done, upon bursting through the hotel room door, was wash her hands for the second time since exiting the plane, and with the soap write EATING IS BAD FOR YOU, elsewhere on the mirror. She would have known it if she’d written EATING IS BAD FOR YOU and JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS together as a kind of if/then statement, like, as long as all eating is bad for you then you might as well enjoy the clams.
She stood in the shower, dripping and watching the words slowly disappear from view as the steam left the room. As the words faded, her own body appeared before her in their place, fuzzy at first and then less fuzzy. She watched the words go for a long time, and she didn’t especially like to see her body, enough that before dismissing the idea as absurd she wondered for a moment if writing messages on all those mirrors across the country was a figurative way for her to write over the space where her body would otherwise appear, a means for her to claim authority over a space where she was otherwise faced with her lack of control, with her body the features of which she’d had no hand in deciding.
In spite of the man she’d brought back to her room at a Holiday Inn in Seattle, three months prior, who behaved toward Claire as if she had revealed to him at last what a woman was, she did not consider her body to be something to admire. She felt strongly that her hips didn’t quite match her legs, and found she could not explain just what she meant by that in Seattle, to her gobsmacked admirer, who said her body was perfect, which made her laugh.
She couldn’t explain to him what she meant; nor could she explain to herself convincingly the presence in the La Quinta of the words she didn’t write.
Did someone else have the same idea she’d had? It was possible. It seemed likely that someone else would think, at some point, to write things on bathroom mirrors.
It seemed less likely to her that whoever this person was would choose to write messages as nonspecific yet evocative as hers were. That’s how she thought of them, at least.
Did another guest write the other words? Was it a hotel employee who’d done it? Was the hotel itself sentient; had the La Quinta become self-aware, or been outfitted with an artificial intelligence that had predicted she would write something, not knowing what that would be, and preempted it? Was the place fucking haunted?
All of these things she considered as she dried off and wrapped the towel around her weird hips. As she continued thinking—something she did more or less constantly, even when she’d tried and failed to meditate, with that guy in Seattle the second time she went to Seattle, looking him up before she arrived, since she was going to be in town anyway—the words disappeared from what then appeared to be a plain mirror without any writing on it.
When she returned to the room, later that evening, after hiring an ecstatic man who overreacted to being granted a customer support position at a corporate headquarters where, without a college degree, he would never make more than $28,000 a year—$30,000 if he was lucky—the mirror still looked like nothing.
When she emerged from the shower the following morning, no new words had been written there.
She bid them goodbye, and left for her flight to somewhere North Dakota, where a fracking company was hiring a new engineer.
Engineers were the most fun to hire, because they rarely seemed very pleased to be hired. Almost to a man they were stonefaced, and they were nearly all men.
For another eight months, she continued to write messages on hotel room mirrors.
In that time, she stayed at 111 hotels in 28 states. She hired almost 200 people, and was growing tired of her job. As joyful a thing as it was to hire people, she was beginning to feel a little pointless, to feel somewhat or very purposeless, like a tool that was invented not because there was any need for it but because it hadn’t been invented yet. She felt like the human equivalent of a piece of metal that would help screwdrivers drive screws.
She felt also like a midwife who delivers a thousand babies but never has any of her own. After hiring so many people, she wanted to be hired herself. She wanted to partake in some of the satisfaction she saw on the faces of the people she hired. It had been long enough since she’d been granted her current position, she’d forgotten what it felt like.
Mostly, she wanted to get a different job that made more sense to her.
She had asked men and women at the companies that brought her in why they’d bothered bringing her in, why they hadn’t just done the hiring themselves.
It’s not hard to do, she’d said, imperiling her livelihood. You just tell them they’re hired.
Most of them said it was something they were required to do by their corporate higher-ups. Others explained that it was just better this way, that many of the people they hired wouldn’t be with the company long, and so if an intermediary did the hiring it would make the separation easier, later on. Not much later on.
Having you here, said a man to Claire in Albuquerque, is like pulling off a Band-Aid. It’s always better if you can get Mom to do it.
Claire didn’t like that the man had essentially just said that she was playing the role of his mother. There was nothing about it that she liked. But she knew she would never see him again. So, whatever.
She had had enough, by then, of the job and of the travel.
It was no coincidence that she had gotten tired of writing messages on mirrors. Usually, now, when she looked at a mirror, she felt utterly uninspired.
At a Holiday Inn in Columbus, she had written on a mirror I AM OUT OF IDEAS.
Soon, somewhere in America, she would probably end up writing CLAIRE RULES again.
At a La Quinta in Kansas City, the last La Quinta she would ever stay in for work, she wrote on the mirror EATING IS BAD 4 U.
The news of Prince’s death had just arrived. She was trying to process it.
She looked at what she’d written, sighed, and took a shower.
When she stepped out of the shower, minutes later, the entire mirror was covered with writing.
Holy shit, she said aloud, brushing back her hair.
DON’T TELL ME THAT EATING IS BAD 4 U, it read. JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS AS THEY ARE. The words overlapped in some places; it was a clumsy mess, up there on the mirror.
But the message was clear.
The message that lay behind inside the written message grew even clearer, the longer Claire stood there, the more the words and the steam faded and her hips and the rest of her body grew less obscure. If she had stayed in this room three times in the nearly three years she’d had her job, and had written on the mirror on each visit, and hadn’t recognized the room on her return visits, and in all that time no one had cleaned the mirror thoroughly enough to remove the words she had written, then it was time to switch careers, to settle down and stop staying in hotels, or at least to find work with a company that would put her up in better hotels.
There would be no tip for housekeeping that morning. As she waited for the Uber she ordered, she gave notice in a terse email to her supervisor, whom she had only met once, when he’d hired her. He had done it himself. The rest of the time, she had been on the road.
She would travel to hire only eight more people in the two weeks that followed, at the end of which she would be done hiring people on behalf of the cowards who couldn’t face the temporary employees who didn’t know they were temporary.
Her final mirror message, written in the bathroom of the apartment she moved into in St. Louis after quitting her job, because she had family in St. Louis, was written for herself.
It was EGGENPLATZENSCHLATZ. It was a word she had made up on the spot, but she swore that when she found a job she wouldn’t travel for, except when commuting, she would decide what it meant.
Or maybe she would have someone over. Maybe the guy from Seattle would visit, and he would take a shower in her rented bathroom, and see the message, and together they would decide the meaning of EGGENPLATZENSCHLATZ.
It probably wouldn’t be the guy from Seattle.
There was no telling what might happen, though, in St. Louis.