Proust Had His Madeleines and I My Doritos
"Hotel Seattle" by Lily King, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Alyssa Songsiridej
One of Lily King’s greatest subjects is youthful longing, the way early love can take the mundane or even the downright dangerous and turn it into fool’s gold, false but irresistibly crystalline. In King’s fiction, like “Hotel Seattle,” or her previous novels such as the wonderful Writers & Lovers, an object is not just an object, but a touchstone for a full personal history. The tone of nostalgia shifts the truth, a seismic tremor that can shatter the story’s ground.
At age eighteen, the unnamed narrator of “Hotel Seattle” falls in boyish lust with Paul, his college roommate, and continues to long for him even after Paul has proven to be a less-than-quality friend. They fall apart, they lose contact, the intervening years swallowed up by King’s quick, elegant summary. There’s Paul’s wedding, then the narrator’s coming out, there’s his first real boyfriend, Steve, who is gentle and funny and sweet. Careful allusions to a satisfying—if routine—life. Then comes Paul’s phone call, after years of silence, offering excitement and second chances, like a beat from a romantic comedy. But King’s skilled hand plays with the expectations of genre, and after they hang up, a quick exchange with Steve shows how even just the prospect of seeing Paul again sends the narrator back into deleterious thinking.
When they reunite at a hotel bar, Paul is no longer the popular, handsome boy, the one with “compact muscles in his calves, and little fins for shoulder blades.” Instead, he’s a middle-aged salesman whose shoulders have “fattened and curled in,” the kind of man who calls his wife a “bean counter” and never really apologizes for his homophobia, demonstrated cruelly by the way he drops the narrator for coming out.
While King foreshadows how Paul’s past cruelty might morph into future violence, she also shows the way the narrator can’t resist his own memory, what he wants Paul to be: the golden boy again, sitting on the dorm room bed, the two of them. “Proust had his madeleines and I my Doritos,” the narrator notes, lost in the memory of Sundays spent studying and snacking. Here is the danger and also the power of old longing, a telescope so focused on the idealized beloved that it cuts off the close, present, and potentially dangerous reality.
King makes you not only see this, but also feel it, falling along with the narrator into tragedy. You feel the intoxication and the hunger of youth, the kind of desire that comes only before you’ve fully learned how to want anything. The pull brings the narrator into a deeply awful encounter, one whose reverberations can be felt into the beyond-the-page future. But a master like Lily King can handle such difficult material in a way that shows not only the feeling and the broken illusions, but also, once a fantasy’s fragility is firmly exposed, the beginning of a way out.
– Alyssa Songsiridej
Managing editor, Recommended Reading
Proust Had His Madeleines and I My Doritos
In college, Paul would buy a fiesta-sized bag of Doritos on Sunday after Mass and lie stomach down on his bed with his textbooks and notebooks propped up against his pillow and do all his work for the week ahead. He didn’t stand up for hours at a time. A cup of coffee and a bag of Doritos was all he needed. Our dorm beds made an L in the room. Every Sunday I could look at his body for as long as I wanted.
We were best friends because we were roommates. I never deluded myself that he would have chosen me otherwise. Socially we balanced each other out. He was the guy who came into the room and everyone was relieved. I made people deeply uneasy, myself most of all. If we hadn’t shared a room I would have been one of those guys on our hall that got a nod from him in the stairwell, maybe a bit of banter at the sink shaving, but no two a.m. arguments about transubstantiation or Bret Easton Ellis.
You grow up Catholic (Mass, CCD, youth camps) with six brothers, a megalomaniac father, and a mother who is on her knees in prayer whenever you try to find her, it’s hard to scrape through all the voodoo layers to recognize you’re gay. “Sexual urges,” Father Corcoran used to say through the permanent crust of his lips, “are the maggots at the feast.” We learned to zap our urges the minute we felt them. And homosexual urges got snuffed even quicker, before they made it to the brain. They left a mark, though. I knew I was off somehow. For a long time I thought it was just religion I needed to flush out. That the girl in my arms was just not the right girl. I tried another and another. So many willing girls. And none of them quite right.
But on Sundays in college, with hours to trail my eyes up and down the length of Paul, who was quite narrow, with small, compact muscles in his calves, and little fins for shoulder blades, the unearthing began. Proust had his madeleines and I my Doritos. Even now I can stick my nose into a bag of them and travel swiftly back to our corner room, the New England gloom and what felt at the time like a great tangle of feeling but was merely a boyish lust.
Without question, Paul was straight. He dated Marion Kelley freshman year, Ellie Sullivan, Bridgett Pappas, and Cheryl Lynch sophomore year, Lori Duff sophomore summer and straight up until the winter formal of senior year where he met Gail McNamara, the very worst of the whole hit parade, whom he married two springs after we graduated, in 1987.
“I’m sorry you’re not my best man. My mother made me choose Joe.” Joe was the meanest of his brothers. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have come home.” He was fastening a yellow rose to my lapel in the basement of the church.
“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” I was drunk from lunch. I was nervous. I had had sex—real sex— with a man for the first time a few weeks earlier. I knew I was gay. Finally. I could say it to myself without feeling nauseated. I also knew Paul was marrying the wrong person, knew every complaint he’d ever had about Gail. She treated him like an employee; she didn’t always smell good; she was moody, irrational, not always honest, and used sex as a bargaining chip. I waited for him to crack, to beg me to help him bolt. We still had fifteen minutes before the ceremony.
“Are you sure about this?” I said finally.
“Yes. I’ve pinned on six of these already.”
“Am I sure I want to get married?”
He laughed. “I’m extremely sure.”
A car of bridesmaids had pulled up. Their ankles and hemlines were at eyelevel through the small windows.
He wasn’t even twenty-four. I said, “It’s like you’ve walked into an enormous shop and chosen the first little tchotchke on the table.”
He laughed. He had an amazing patience with people, even drunk people trying to derail his life at the last minute. “Gail is not a tchotchke. And she’s about to be my wife.” He was devastating in his gray suit. A black line went down the outside of the leg and I wanted to touch it, trace it. I wanted to lift the coattail and have one last glimpse of the bum I looked at so primly, so reluctantly, the longing strangled deep inside me, for four years of Sundays. But now was not the time to tell my best friend I was gay and wanted him. Now was the time to climb the basement stairs, to stand in a dark hallway, give him a dry, maidenly hug, and wish him Godspeed.
I told Paul last. First I told my mother (she said she’d tell my father herself, but I don’t think she ever did), and then I told my brothers, one by one, in an elaborate fashion involving a letter and a gift and a surreptitious meeting in the telephone closet beneath the stairs one Christmas that will be mocked forevermore. Pssssst, is all one brother has to say to another, pointing to an imaginary telephone closet (my parents are both dead now, the house sold) and everyone is practically peeing their pants. For Paul I had no letter or gift or telephone closet. We used to meet a few times a year when his work brought him to Boston, or mine brought me to New York, but I couldn’t do it in person. He called me up one night (he was usually the one to call, late at night, some awful music on in the background) and when he’d gone on too long about his kid’s strep throat, I blurted it out. “By the way I’m gay.”
He surprised me. He took it badly. He was silent, then grunted out a few measly sentences about being glad to have been told, and got off the phone. He never called back. I lost him, just like that.
I got out of New England. I went to Seattle with my boyfriend Steve. I had been about to break up with Steve, but then he told me about a possible transfer to the West Coast. He was my first real boyfriend, and he’d been so generous and tender, helping to peel back all my prickly layers of fear and self-loathing, but I felt like it was time to move on, see what else was on offer. Moving, resettling, making new friends, reconfiguring routes to coffee shops, bookstores, restaurants, clubs—all that can delay the end of a relationship indefinitely. We were still in that stage, our third year in Seattle, when Paul called.
Steve answered. We didn’t have Caller ID then, so phone calls were still a mystery. Steve started flapping his arm immediately, waving me up off the couch with huge sweeps while carrying on in a flat placid voice, saying “Yeah, I think he’s here somewhere. Unless he fell off the balcony into the neighbors’ weed.” Steve loved that we overlooked an illegal garden. He told it to everyone we met. “I hope you’re not a cop,” he added before covering the receiver with his palm and mouthing the words Paul Donovan over and over. Steve and I had been together eight years by then and though I’d tried to downplay my attraction to my college roommate, it was clear to me now that I’d hidden nothing.
During that whole short conversation, Steve was leaping from sofa to sofa, a mockery, a parody of my slamming heart.
Paul was coming to Seattle on business. He’d run into my brother Sean at a Red Sox game and he’d mentioned I was living out there. Did I want to have a drink next Tuesday night?
I went through the motions of checking the calendar and coming back to tell him I could get free.
He suggested 7:30 at his hotel.
“Great. I’ll put it right on the calendar,” I said, not knowing what was coming out of my mouth and Steve still hopping around me.
“You and your calendar,” Paul laughed, as if this were a thing he’d known about me for years. “You won’t remember?”
On Tuesday night I left Steve pouting in the apartment. He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t come along, or at least meet us for dessert.
“We’re having a drink, not dinner.”
“Then let me meet you for the last drink.”
“The last drink might be the first drink.”
“Then let me just go to the bar, pretend to run into you. I don’t have to be your boyfriend. I can be a coworker. I can be your masseuse.”
“Like I want him to think I have a masseuse. It’s bad enough I’m gay.”
Steve shut his eyes and shook his head. “All the years your therapist and I have put in to deprogramming you and it just doesn’t make a dent, does it?.”
“It’s bad enough to Paul that I’m gay. It ruined our friendship.”
“He ruined the friendship.”
“Yes. Goodbye.” I kissed him on the lips, which he liked—we weren’t doing a whole lot of that lately. He held onto me and I let him, knowing that it increased the chances that he wouldn’t follow me.
Paul was at the bar, elbows on the counter, looking over the bartender’s head at a ballgame on the flat screen.
“This place is like a morgue.”
He turned to look at me. “Welcome to my world. Hotel bars and conference rooms.”
He was middle-aged. His hair had retreated toward his crown, his shoulders had fattened and curled in. We didn’t shake hands. I didn’t want to. I busied myself with my jacket, made an unnecessary fuss about where to put it, and came slowly back to the chair beside him. It was anger that was making my heart thrash. I was still angry at him. Whether it was because he had dropped me or because he was no longer a god on earth but a middle-aged salesman, I did not know.
“But I like places like this,” he said, shaking the ice in his glass. “Everyone drifting in from everywhere, from nowhere. Look at the woman in the corner. God, what is going to happen to her tonight?”
“A man in white polyester pants is going to walk in and spot her.”
“The entertainment.” He nodded to the corner, where there was a small stage with just a microphone on a stand.
“And he can just tell how good she’d be in duet.”
“‘I remember when,” he began, falsetto. “You couldn’t wait to love me.’”
“’Used to hate to leave me.’” I couldn’t help it.
“’Now after lovin’ me late at night.’” We laughed. He could still hit the high notes.All the nights we’d sat on our beds with a beer and let our minds wander together like this. It wasn’t like talking. It was effortless. Desultorating, I used to call it. Could he just slip back into that without an apology? Would I let him?
“Or,” I said, “you could just go over there and fuck her yourself.”
His eyebrows twitched down and quickly up. He wasn’t going to show me his surprise at my bitterness. “I could indeed.” He drained his drink. I felt him trying to think of something witty to add. At that moment, I felt like he couldn’t have a thought or an impulse I couldn’t anticipate.
“Do you travel for work?’ he asked.
“No. Never.” He didn’t know what I did. “Clearly you do.”
“Not as much as they want me to. It’s not worth the battles at home when I come back.
Gail is such a bean counter. A trip like this and I lose any possibility of an hour to myself for the next three weekends.”
I didn’t want to hear about Gail. I had given him the chance to defect. “So what do you do with an hour to yourself?”
“I don’t know. It’s all hypothetical. There is no free time. We’ve got three kids and a fixer-upper we never fixed up so I’m just managing the chaos dawn to dusk. Hardware store, pharmacy, soccer game. Repeat.”
The bartender finally noticed me and came over. We knew each other from a party but neither of us acknowledged it and it created a tension Paul picked up on.
“What was that about?”
“That little,” he rubbed his fingers together, “frisson.”
“There was no frisson.”
“There was a frisson. I know a frisson when I feel one.”
“You might have felt a frisson. I was just ordering a Campari.”
“A Campari. Is that some sort of code?”
“Code for what?”
“You know, a way to tell the bartender you’re gay.”
I stood up.
“Sit down,” he said, in a bored stentorian voice he must use with his kids.
“You owe me an apology, not further insult.”
I saw his face flinch into an imitation and then flatten back out. I wondered if he did that to his kids, mimic them, the way my father had mimicked me. It was the first time I’d recognized the similarity between Paul and my father.
I should have left then.
But he said, “I do owe you an apology.” And I sat, to wait for it.
We moved to a booth for dinner. We didn’t switch to wine. He stayed with his single malts on the rocks and I moved to flavored martinis. Neither of us had been very committed drinkers in college so the steady rate of his drink orders surprised me, as did my own insistence on keeping up with him. I had the sense that we were hurrying somewhere, having to get in our last meal and our last drink before we went, though for the longest time, idiot that I was, I didn’t know where we were going.
We desulterated through the appetizers, horrible crab clusters covered in some sort of bark and fried to black. They inspired thoughts on food in New England—he lived in Cincinnati now—and between the two of us we recalled nearly every dish at the Boston College dining hall: the Welsh rarebit, the American chop suey, the pink sponge cake.
The waiter brought the entrees: osso bucco, grilled salmon. I was full, buzzed, tired. My initial nervousness had collapsed into a heavy fatigue, laced with fear. I couldn’t understand the fear, though I knew it had to do with the change in him. But I was used to changes. One of my brothers had recently lost over 200 pounds, two close friends had had sex changes, and my mother, after my father’s death, returned to college and became a large animal veterinarian. On her website she was listed as a stud service specialist. All Paul had done was become beefier and disillusioned—who hadn’t?
“After you called that time, and told me, you know, what you told me,” he said, and I didn’t correct him about who had called whom, which was hard for me because I like people to tell stories accurately, “I must have spent a year just sifting through every memory I had of us. Shit, we went camping. We shared that fold-out couch at my mom’s apartment, showers, bathrooms. You had girlfriends! That little Carla or Carlie who was so in love with you. And that other one, began with a B. And didn’t you have something going with Anna at my wedding? God, when I told Gail she was like, No shit Sherlock, but I tell you, I never saw it. You are one good performance artist.”
“I wasn’t acting. It took me a long time to put the pieces together.”
“Oh, come on. That’s bullshit. Everyone knows. You know it when you’re six years old. You know if you’re thinking I want to fuck her or I want to fuck him.”
“You thought about fucking when you were six years old?”
“Damn straight. Miss Carlyle. Tight brown skirt.”
“You knew what fucking was when you were six years old?”
“I knew Mrs. Caryle and my penis had something going on. I knew that.”
“Well, my penis didn’t have anything going on with anyone until I was twenty-three.”
“That is just not true. You had girlfriends.”
“They were friends I made out with.”
“You never slept with any of them?”
“No. And I never pretended to.”
“I just assumed.”
“I wasn’t like you.”
And now I figure out why I’m scared. I’m scared he’s going to ask me if I wanted to sleep with him back then. And I know I won’t lie. And I know that will truly be the end for us.
“And now you sleep only with men?”
“Yes. One man at a time.”
“You never had a ménage?”
Why do straight men love to ask this? “Not really.”
“Well, Steve and I once invited this guy up. We really thought we were going to do it with him, but then he took off his pants and he had this really flabby bum. He was a pretty slender guy with this white jelly bum and Steve and I could not stop laughing and he got mad— understandably—and left.” Steve called it the big flabby fanny fiasco. We still could get laughing until our stomachs ached about it.
If Steve were here he could tell the story of that night so well no one would be able to breathe. But Paul didn’t think my version was funny. “Is it better, sex with men?”
I laughed. “It is for me.”
“I mean, sex is kind of athletic. I’m just wondering. I’ve kind of been thinking about this for a while. I mean. Women are always complaining about getting hurt, you know?”
“You mean emotionally?”
“No, physically. I mean sex hurts them.”
“I mean, just when you get really into it they tell you it hurts.”
“Really?” I didn’t think there was much about any kind of sex that I didn’t know about by now, but this news surprised me.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had sex with Gail without her saying ouch like fifty times. I just wonder if with men it’s different.”
“Maybe it is. Some people are rougher than others.”
“Are you rough?”
I realized he was leaning halfway across the table; his knuckles were touching my plate and his eyes, his watery drunk green eyes were all over me.
“Yes, kind of.” It was the martinis talking.
“I already know what your penis looks like.”
“And I yours.” I said, trying for lightness and missing. The penis he’d mentioned was suddenly rock hard.
“I want to.”
“Paul,” I said.
He stood up, signaled to the waiter to put it on his tab, and nearly pushed me to the elevator. When it came we got in alone, and as soon as the doors closed he was at me—mouth, stubble, osso bucco breath. I am kissing Paul, I am kissing Paul. His name rang through me like a cathedral bell. He pressed me hard against the brass handrail, his hands reaching for my fly and then the elevator dinged, and he was on the other side of the box and looking like he’d never seen me in his life. But no one was on the seventh floor when the doors opened. He put out his arm for me to step out first and then he shoved me against the elevator opening and when the doors tried to shut they bumped against my back over and over, pushing me into him. He was at me like an animal, biting my nipples through my shirt, shoving, thrusting, as if he’d gotten a hold of a piece of meat too enormous to know what to do with.
“Paul.” I took his face in my hands and held it in front of mine. “Slow down, baby. Let’s get to the room.”
He seemed unable to make eye contact, but fished in his pocket for the key and led me down the hallway.
I stood in the center of the navy blue room as he locked and bolted and chained the door. I could hear him breathing. “You know, I think we need to take a few steps back here.”
He didn’t seem to register that I had spoken. He took off his shirt with one paw reaching behind his back and yanking up while the other fumbled with belt and zipper. His penis shot straight out at me and he was still breathing noisily but smiling now, proud of his erection, looking at me for the first time since we’d left the restaurant, as if he expected praise for what it could do.
“Lie down,” he growled.
I sat on the bed. “I’d really like—”
“On your stomach.”
“Paul, I’m not doing this.”
Again his face flinched. Then he walked over and leaned down and kissed me, long and slow and gorgeous, just the way I knew he could, just the way he’d kissed all those girls I was so jealous of. But even as he was doing it, even as my own erection returned and my insides spun around, I knew he was placating me, giving me what I wanted but what he really had no interest in giving or receiving. And when he had weakened me enough, he flipped me over and yanked down my pants (they were Steve’s jeans and slightly too big for me) without undoing them.
How many times that night did I try to make contact, beg him to slow down, to stop? He would not stop. When it was over, my body rang in pain. Paul passed out instantly and I lay there waiting for the strength to get up, to return like this to Steve. It never came. I woke up to the sound of the shower. I was sore everywhere. My legs and stomach had dark red bruises. I found it hard to roll over. “You sound just like Gail,” he’d grumbled at one point when I complained about the pain. Is this how Gail felt in the morning? Is this what he did to her, or was it what he thought men did to each other, or was it simply what he did to me, to punish me?
The shower stopped. The faucet ran. The tap of a razor against the sink.
When he opened the door his face was drained of color.
“Morning,” I said sweetly, mockingly, the contented lover beneath the sheets.
He seemed not to be able to come in the room. “Do you have AIDS?”
“I need you to tell me the truth. Are you HIV positive?”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve been tested plenty of times.”
“Like when? When was the last time?”
“I don’t know. Three years ago.” It’d been more like five.
“Three years ago. Jesus Christ. Three years ago. I have a wife and kids. Fuck! I cannot fucking believe this.” He went to the closet, unzipped a garment bag, and pulled a black suit and a striped tie off the hanger.
“Steve and I are monogamous.”
He snorted. “Oh yeah. I can see that. Is he as monogamous as you?”
“Paul—this was obviously. This was the first. I’ve never—”
“I heard Steve on the phone yesterday. He seemed up for a fuck. Face it, guys, straight, queer, they fuck when they get the chance. And gay guys get a disease for doing it. And you know who’s going to pay for it? My wife and my kids. You better fucking get out of that bed and go get yourself tested and send me the fucking results. Here, I’ll get you a card and you can send it to my office. You hear me?” He was rummaging around in his briefcase which was on top of his suitcase. “What the fuck!” And he tipped the whole thing over, briefcase, suitcase, stand. They crashed against a little round table that held a small vase of tulips and when the table didn’t quite fall he pushed that over too. Slowly I moved toward my clothes.
“I thought you guys were supposed to wear condoms.”
“I wouldn’t say I had a whole lot of choice about that last night.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that your train was going into the station and there was nothing I could do to stop it.”
Then his pale blue face knotted to one side. I’d never seen him cry. It never occurred to me Paul could cry. He stood there with a white towel wrapped around his thick waist, his hairless fat chest heaving, and his face all crumpled like a dirty napkin.
I continued to dress. Every movement hurt in some way. He wanted me to comfort him, to acknowledge his strange premature straight man’s middle age crisis. Maybe he even wanted to have sex again.
I unchained and unbolted the door, and left. The corridor was silent. The elevator ascended, opened, accepted my weight with only a slight sag. It dropped with a swift, gentle sigh to the lobby.
In a red leather chair by the revolving door, Steve was sleeping. I nudged his knee with my knee and his eyes opened and I watched them find the whole story in my face. He was older than me, and wise as God. He walked beside me, very slowly, as slowly as you can imagine walking, out onto the street, over to Pike, and all the way back home.