The baby wailed. I rolled and looked left but didn’t see the clock. I stared at the nightstand before probing for my wife. She wasn’t there. I squinted, rubbed my eyes, and looked at the walls. There were stripes on them and my bedroom walls didn’t have stripes. Or did they? The baby switched to screeching. I thought for a moment, definitely no stripes in my bedroom. Through three large windows on the far side of the bed, I saw the glitzy lights of Times Square, which I was almost sure had no business in Kansas. It wasn’t until I remembered that I didn’t own a baby that I knew I wasn’t home.
I found the clock on the opposite nightstand and read the red, digital numbers: 3:24 AM. I had a meeting at eight and I needed sleep. The baby alternated between screeching and wailing. It lost its voice for a moment before locating it. It screamed. This was my first meeting with a New York client. None of my partners believed it when I said I nailed a big city client. I spent the last two months preparing the presentation for the three vice presidents who agreed to attend. The client sold bagel-making machines, but I wasn’t fussy, at least not yet. And, besides, bagels were an important currency in New York, as my wife said when I told her, a definite step to moving big time.
I was sure by now that the parents should have wakened, rushed to the baby, and hit the off switch. I listened but didn’t hear a sound in the next room except for the screaming, which had transformed into an intense wave of crying, screaming, softening, breathing, crying, screaming, softening, breathing. I cleared my throat loudly, hoping whoever was on the other side of the wall would take the hint, but there was no sound from behind the wall. I thought about knocking on the wall or door, but decided against it. Surely, the parents were doing everything in their power to quiet this monster.
Then I began to think that maybe they didn’t feel guilty about the screams. Perhaps their baby always screamed, and they grew so used to it that it didn’t wake them anymore. I dismissed that thought. Not even the headphones that the airline wavers wear when directing airplanes to gates could mask this baby’s wails. Perhaps they weren’t thinking about the poor businessman on the other side of their hotel room wall; they mustn’t know that I had an early meeting with a must-impress client. Then the thought struck me: perhaps they didn’t care.
I put a pillow over my head and covered my ears, which was like drying oneself with a towel while swimming across a river. After fifteen minutes of constant screaming, I stood up and dressed. I checked that my computer—with its precious presentation—was charging and safe on the desk. I combed my hair with my fingers and grabbed my key. I would show my face next door and let them know that while I feel their pain, I hoped they would feel mine and take the baby out of the room or something.
I listened at the door of room 3911 until I was sure that the wails emanated from inside. I knocked gently on the door and waited. I knocked three more times before I heard movement. .The baby’s wails cutoff suddenly.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, when the peephole’s color darkened slightly. “But I wanted to make sure everything was okay with your baby.”
There was no response.
“I know how hard babies can be,” I continued. “I have four nieces and they can be quite a handful at times.”
“Anyway, I’m glad your baby quieted down. I didn’t mean to bother you, but I have a meeting tomorrow morning that took me months to plan, and I hoped to get a good night’s sleep before it started. Well, sorry about this. Have a good night”
I went back into my room. I imagined her other neighbor and probably the entire hallway silently applauding my efforts. I stripped and jumped into the cooled bed. I rolled to the warmer side, pulled the covers to my chin, and closed my eyes. Sleep stuck her talons into my chest and I slept.
I woke to the baby wailing, again. I couldn’t have slept long, since I felt no grogginess. I checked the digital clock, and, sure enough, it was only 4:06 AM. The baby’s wails turned into screeches. Using my fingers, I counted the hours I had slept: asleep at 1 AM after final touches on the presentation; awake at 3:20 AM to baby’s screams, leaving me two hours plus the ten-minute nap I just managed. I yawned fully with my jaw locked wide open, and became anxious about my sleepiness.
My bagel clients agreed to a three-hour presentation this morning. I had fifty slides, at, on average, three minutes per slide, leaving me with thirty-minutes to take questions and sign the documents. The baby’s cry began alternating between screeching and screaming. It sounded vaguely familiar, as if the baby had a routine cry. I would make the sales pitch twice, once after introduction, and once before I took questions. I practiced the presentation many times, on my wife Elaine, my partners, and my bathroom mirror. All three approved. The baby lost its voice and for a moment, there was silence. Then it started screaming again. Two hours might not be too bad. I thought back to my days in college, where I’d pull all-nighters and take tests without sleep. I was ten years out of school, and when I looked back, I sometimes thought I would have done better had I slept instead of studied, or, as I would tell my kids if Elaine ever convinced me to have any, had I prepared weeks before the exams.
I decided that the walls were thick, which was why I hadn’t heard the parents’ frantic efforts to quiet the baby. Only its screeches could penetrate the deadening walls. The baby fell into its now familiar cadence of cry, scream, soften, breathe. I looked to the clock. It was 4:10 AM, and if I could get them to quiet the baby, I could manage at least two and half more hours of sleep.
I dressed and knocked on room 3911 again. There was no answer and I knocked louder.
“I’ve tried to deal,” I said somewhat breathlessly, my annoyance at the confrontation beginning to rise into my throat. “I really have, but this is getting ridiculous. Please, take your baby to the lobby until it falls asleep. I’m sure I’m not the only one with important meetings on this floor.”
There was no sound from the room except the screams.
“At least acknowledge me,” I said, my voice rising as bells rang in my ears. I heard shuffling in some of the other rooms around me, and through another closed door down the hall, I barely made out, “Shut that baby up!”
I heard only the baby’s cry, scream, soften, breathe. When red obscured my vision and my anxiety threatened to boil over, I heard the rattling of chains and the unlocking of the door. I smiled and changed to my salesman face, thinking only of the two hours of sleep I might manage.
A woman appeared in the door. She wore a revealing nightgown and her body had the look of a burnt turkey; thin shoulder bones poking through stretched and sunken skin as if she had been overcooked. Large black circles surrounded her eyes, giving her a raccoon appearance, and a mound of large frizzy hair made her face look tiny. Her hands shook slightly and the baby wailed behind her.
“I again apologize for bothering you,” I said with a smile, showing my teeth and dimples, “but the baby.”
“She cries,” the woman said. Her voice was as shaky as her hands and I wondered if she ever slept.
“Is there anything I could do to help?” I asked.
“Afraid not. She’ll fall asleep eventually. I’m sorry she’s bothering you, but that’s what babies do. I should get back to her.”
The baby continued to cry and I looked over the woman into her room. Her lights were off but an oversized television screen in Times Square flickered outside her window. It showed an advertisement for woman’s shoes and illuminated the room. I saw her opened travel bag on the floor, its contents spilled out along the floor. Her bed, which still had hospital corners, a clean fold over, and neatly stacked pillows, didn’t look slept in. What I couldn’t find, however, was the wailing baby.
The baby’s cries with the door open sounded different. An almost imperceptible high-pitched sound accompanied the screams. When I saw the woman’s eyes darting back to the room, I knew something was wrong. She pushed the door closed on me. I knocked again, but there was no answer. The baby continued to cry but I now knew there was no baby. It was a recording. What type of sick woman would play a recording of a baby crying in the middle of the night? I knocked louder.
“Listen, lady,” I said. “I don’t know what your malfunction is, but turn off that recording!”
The door across from the woman opened and a large man appeared in a white bathrobe, which fell only to his knee, and didn’t fully cover his belly. “What is going on out here? Has she shut up that monster?”
“There is no monster,” I said. “There’s nobody in there except her. It’s a recording of some sort. Can you believe this?”
The man studied me, squinting as if to determine my level of sanity. “There’s no baby in there?”
“Nope,” I answered.
The man rubbed his hairy stomach and stood looking at me. “Should we call the front desk?”
“That’s what I was thinking,” I said.
Before I finished speaking, the woman’s door opened, and the cries became louder. “I can’t sleep without the cries,” she said. Her voice was broken as if she was crying, but her eyes showed no evidence of tears. “I need the cries. They’re my baby’s cries. You have to understand. My baby’s cries!”
The woman looked sicker when she spoke. Her belly was large, but not in the way of a fat or pregnant woman. It was round like a person who didn’t have enough food to eat. Her hand went into her mess of hair and she squeezed and pulled at the curls. The cries stopped suddenly and I heard the sound of a click.
“That proves it,” I said. “The tape just finished. It is a tape!”
The man nodded. “Don’t you have earphones or something?” the man asked.
“I’ll sleep and you won’t even hear the cries,” the woman said. “I promise. Just don’t take away my baby.”
This was getting weird. This woman obviously had issues that the man and I wouldn’t be able to handle alone. I thought of rushing into her room and removing her tape recorder, but while I wanted this drama over quickly, I didn’t want to do anything that would worsen the situation.