Siobhan Fallon is the author of The Confusion of Languages and You Know When the Men Are Gone, which won the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction, the Indies Choice Honor Award, and the Texas Institute of Letters Award for First Fiction. Here, she shares the small, but significant, moment in her life that inspired The Confusion of Languages.
A writer dedicates years to a book. Yet it’s possible for the story to spring from a small and heedless moment. An accident.
Among all the imperfect things I’ve managed to do in my life, the thirty seconds it took me to potentially ruin someone’s life inspired me to spend six years writing a novel.
When we were stationed in Monterey in 2010, my daughter and I planned to meet my husband, his brother, his brother’s wife and two of their friends at a hotel in San Francisco. As I pulled up to the valet, I called my husband, realizing I didn’t know what room they had all been crammed into the night before. “Three-thirty-two!” he shouted from Alcatraz, wind filling his words.
I handed my car keys over to the valet and swept into the hotel. I remember the arrogance of that moment, behaving as if I belonged there, as if I were used to five-star hotels, indoor fountains, long expanses of marble floors. I was wearing a long, beige sweater and heeled boots – I felt so Californian in those earth tones – confidently pushing my sunny-haired daughter in her stroller. I went to the front desk, asked for the envelope my husband had left for me. The receptionist slid it over to me with a smile. I opened it in the elevator. A hotel key. No note, but I was in. No one had realized I was an interloper, a trespasser.
I went to room 323. The small sign outside the door read Bangkok Suite. I am married to an Infantry officer in the United States Army. Someone who does not let any sort of potentially lewd joke go without comment. “Bangkok” is exactly the sort of word he could not resist. How is it he didn’t mention the Bangkok Suite?
The key didn’t work but I always have trouble with key cards; somehow they go inactive in my Luddite hand. A rangy bellhop was walking down the hallway, thin, loose-limbed, a shock of unnaturally white hair for someone in his forties. I asked him for help, told him I couldn’t get into my room. My room. How quickly I was to show ownership. To lie. He hesitated, looked down at my smiling child, shrugged, used his master key. I tipped him five dollars, so relieved not to have to go down to the front desk with a faulty key; how would I prove I was my sister-in-law, Katie, who had booked this room? The bellhop was grateful, we exchanged pleasantries. I slid into the suite.
There was wine, a fruit basket! My sister-in-law is a manger for a resort in Charleston and I assumed she had bartered an insider deal. I started eating the grapes. My daughter, newly potty trained, decided to poop in the nice big toilet. Then I noticed what looked like old man loafers. And whose glasses were on the bedside table? My brother-in-law did not wear glasses.
Bangkok Suite. Bifocals.
I called my husband.
No answer from Alcatraz. My daughter screamed for me to wipe her. I texted my brother-in-law: “This room is incredible! Seriously, the Bangkok Suite!?” The immediate reply: “YOU ARE IN THE WRONG ROOM. We are 332.”
The door opened. An attractive fifty-year-old brunette woman walked in, pertly plastic-surgeried nose with yoga-worked legs. A man, in glasses, stood behind her. I was on my knees in the middle of the room, pulling up my daughter’s tutu. There was a long unraveled piece of toilet paper trailing from under her foot.
“Oh my God, I’m in the wrong room,” I gasped. “My husband checked in last night without me, I must have gotten the room number mixed up, I’m so sorry …” The woman stood there, completely confused. The man was not confused. He began loudly opening drawers, suitcases, closets, checking everything he owned. I shoved my daughter into the stroller, praying she had flushed the toilet. She waved goodbye with a hand full of their grapes.
Room 332. My key opened up room 332, no problem. This was a tiny room. A normal room. No bifocals. My husband’s North Face backpack was shoved next to one of the double beds.
The phone rang.
“We just received a complaint? Could you please explain how you were in suite 323?”
“I got the room number wrong and assumed my key malfunctioned … I’m sorry. Do you want me to go and talk to them?”
“Who let you into the room?”
“I don’t know.”
“Mrs. Evans, was it a bellhop? There are only two on duty. A manager is questioning them now. Who was it?”
“We’ll find out.” Her voice took on a bullying edge. “The guests in 323 are understandably very angry. We have a reputation to protect. Hotel policy is that guests with malfunctioning keys must come to the front desk so this doesn’t happen. The bellhops know this.”
“But it was an act of kindness! I had my baby, he was helping me! I’m a hotel guest too!”
“Mrs. Evans, please tell me who let you into the room.”
I thought of how pleased the bellhop had been when I gave him that measly five bucks. Then I wondered how long I could impersonate my sister-in-law without making this situation worse.
I was a coward.
“The older man, with the white hair,” I said.
When everyone returned from Alcatraz, Katie, speaking as a hotel manager herself, said the bellhop would probably lose his job. “But maybe he’ll just get suspended!” she said brightly in her sweet Southern accent while I tried not to cry.
My husband and I drove back to Monterey that night, my daughter asleep in the back. I ranted about the Bangkok Suite, the loafers, the grapes! He listened patiently, knowing this would become one of the stories I would never be able to let go.
I spent a lot of futile time wondering what I could have done differently. The wondering eventually transformed into curiosity. If a man’s act of kindness could perhaps get him fired from a hotel in America, where all involved were native English speakers, what could happen in a foreign country, one that might seem like the very opposite of America, especially when you throw in language, gender, and cultural barriers?
That’s how my writer’s mind works. One terrible mishap of a day became a guilty kernel I built a novel around. A novel set in the Middle East. A novel about a naïve American woman who goes traipsing around Jordan, thinking she has figured it all out, wreaking her own brand of innocent havoc wherever she goes, crashing against all sorts of miscommunications and misunderstandings.
Learning that there are so many ways good intentions can go awry.
Learning that, sometimes, an act of kindness can be a dangerous thing.