|Helena Fitzgerald||Mar 29, 2018|
The first thing I do in a hotel room is to put on the robe. No matter the time of the day or the reason I’m in the hotel room, no matter whether I have to leave in half an hour and can only wear the robe for fifteen minutes before taking it off and putting my clothes back on again, I put on the robe. If I’m there with friends or just can’t bothered, I put the robe on over my clothes. The entire point of a hotel room, the whole large thing of it contained in one object, is the hotel robe. The hotel robe is what we actually mean when we say the word “hotel” – everything else is just plans built out from that essential foundation, and the hotel robe as a feeling is bigger than what a hotel offers, too. “Hotel robe” is an emotion one can have without ever setting foot in a hotel.
I put on the hotel robe immediately because it’s the given garment for the given task, like an athlete’s uniform or a superhero’s spandex disguise. The task to which it directs the wearer is blankness and escape and the kind of hoarded and huddled joy that braces against the clock’s continuing movement – if the hotel bathrobe is the uniform, then the sport is how to disappear into a single still moment.
A hotel robe makes the wearer feel beautiful because it allows them to become no one inside of it, particularities and history smoothed out and erased. The thing money really is good at, the thing money actually buys, is not beauty or love or happiness, but cleanliness and anonymity – money can buy silence, more than anything. The blankness of a hotel robe is the way it feels when a large direct deposit hits your account just in time, and for a moment every buzzing in your brain and in the back of your ribcage slows and goes quiet. It’s the way that for a few long moments or even a whole day after that you think that you’ll never do anything wrong to anyone you love again. It is the way in which money is the opposite of the dream where you’re in high school again and everyone is laughing at you. We’re seduced by the false cleanliness of hotel rooms and sheets and robes, by their aggressive blankness, in the same way we’re seduced by the things that sell simplicity, by white linen furniture and expensive athleisure and Everlane’s blank repeating iterations of a single crisp shirt. Messiness – the scruffy edges, the visible marks of the world left on our outsides– admits that one is a person with all the attendant regrets and accumulations people accrue, carrying the long history of imperfect choices and hard surfaces in one’s visibly marked exterior. But cleanliness, in its perfect false promise, is the idea that everything can be forgiven or at least forgotten, that one can, with enough money and determined self-deception, walk into the world unknown again and offer oneself blank as an object to be loved. A hotel robe is what it feels like to wake up in a town where nobody knows your name and you don’t speak the language fluently.
Hotels are a way of converting money into something that is at once material and completely ephemeral. A hotel, if it pulls off the trick that all hotels attempt, if it gets it right, always feels like it is being paid for by someone else, even, or perhaps especially, when that isn’t the case at all. This is a cruel irony for a place where everything you put your hands on costs something, not just literal objects like the soap and the minibar, but each minute in the room becomes a material object, a unit not of time but of money. A hotel room is a reminder that what money really buys is the ability not to care about money, the ability to believe that money is not real.
The hotel robe wraps us in the fantasy that to stay in the hotel means to not worry about what the hotel costs. A hotel robe is the brief, giddy high of buying too many things, of canceling appointments you know you shouldn’t cancel in order to stay inside and ignore your phone. It is the idea that sex or money can save you from the exact anxieties generated by sex or money, it’s the moment right at the top of the roller coaster when you push through the ceiling into some vast silent beyond, some place where there are no consequences and nothing can reach you.
On my thirtieth birthday, Thomas and I stayed on the twenty-second floor of an old grand hotel, both wearing bathrobes and kicking around the blindingly white covers on the huge bed like a raft sailing through storms. We ordered overpriced and unnecessary drinks and told stories the other had already heard and laughed more than any of the stories deserved. I didn’t want to go to sleep because going to sleep meant that the night would end, that the next day would come and I would have to return to the usual world, the unspectacular life twenty-two floors below. If I could stay awake I could stay in this room forever. I wanted to slow down time incrementally until it stopped, focusing in on a smaller and smaller moment right at the center of this night. Eventually I fell asleep and got up the next morning and we left the robes in the room when we checked out of the hotel.
This particular story involves literal hotel robes, but the kind of happiness that causes one to hold up one’s hands to stop time, to try to pinpoint a single moment and live completely still within it, never proceeding into the future, is something larger. It’s a joy we often experience right at the beginning of a relationship, the giddy dive into the cold water of another person’s existence, when we know someone just well enough to ignore the fact that we don’t really know them at all, when we can turn our feelings on a perfect vertical axis, shutting out what came before and what comes next. It’s the feeling that drives us to not even very apologetically cancel plans, it’s the week in college I spent cutting class when I met a boy who lived downtown and had his own apartment with a loft bed that looked onto flat green leaves and shoes strung across a wire cutting the sky behind the building into reckless angles. I had never worn an actual hotel bathrobe back then, but what I felt when I closed down everything in my life that wasn’t that one room was the same thing hotel bathrobes make me feel now. Brand new love is like a hotel bathrobe; the trick is how to get back to there, how to make a person remain what you escape to rather than what you escape from, how to live back down in the world on the ground floor, carrying all your accumulations.