They're married, but not to each other.
Nat unlocks the door and then steps back, to let Ella go in first. The hotel room is high-ceilinged and square, and a double bed takes up most of it. On the bed is a cream-colored quilted spread. Pale heavy curtains frame the window; thinner, translucent ones obscure the view. The carpet is thick and cocoa-colored. There is an ornate bureau, imitation French, and a gilt-framed mirror. The room is close and airless. They have no luggage.
Ella moves ahead of him, stopping near the bed. She's in her late twenties, and thin, with long chestnut-colored hair. She turns, so that she won't see herself in the mirror. She stands facing away from him, looking down. She has never done this before. She hardly knows this man, and this is a terrible mistake. She has made a terrible mistake, coming to this airless room with someone who, it turns out, is a stranger. She stands motionless, awaiting perdition.
Nat follows her into the room.
He has never done exactly this before, either, never done anything quite so bold and crude as to rent a hotel room at lunchtime.
What he did was always out of town, with women he never intended to see again. It was mostly in Los Angeles, a place full of beautiful, willing girls, happy to be taken out for dinner and then back to his hotel. Those encounters had been brief and distant. But this, now, is in his own city, only blocks from his own apartment, with a woman he does want to see again, and he's afraid he's starting something large and irreversible. What it means is the end of his marriage. He won't be able to go on like this; he's going too far. This is reckless, indefensible, and he's doing it in the name of lust, which is, right now, notably absent. He understands that coming here was a mistake, though he believes he loves this woman.
He wonders if today can be salvaged. Perhaps it's the room — should he have gotten a bigger one? But no: it's the silence, the immobility of the room that's the problem, the implacably fixed furniture, the hushing carpet, the heavy curtains, the whole place awaiting human animation. He likes looking at her. She's small and slight, with a polished curtain of hair spilling down her back. Her head is bent.
Ella is looking down at the bedspread, waiting for the worst. It is shameful, it is excruciating, that she's become part of this. What if she's seen by someone she knows, in this corridor of bedrooms, with this man who is not her husband? What is she doing here at lunchtime, with a man she hardly knows? She can't look at him. She can feel his presence — large, solid, he's much taller and stronger than she is — as he stands behind her. She's now obligated to go through with this, since she agreed to come. It feels like an execution. She dreads his touch.
She thinks of her husband. He's downtown right now, in his office, in his shirtsleeves and suspenders. He's on the phone, or making a point to someone — he loves making points — or having another cup of coffee. He's doing something completely ordinary. He's not betraying her utterly, betraying her to the bone, though he has. But he's not doing it right now, and she is. She could call him, there's an ivory phone on the table by the bed. He'd answer at his desk, his voice familiar. "Hello?"
It was a mistake, but she has to go through with it. She is obligated: of course she knew what it meant, meeting at the Plaza for lunch. Now she will have to have sex with him in this strange airless room. She will have to offer him her naked body. She would rather die.
Nat steps closer to her.
It was a mistake, that's all. He turns her body to him and glimpses her grieving face. He puts his arms around her and stands still, holding her close without moving. He can feel her, rigid and fearful. He says nothing, embracing her quietly. It's a mistake, that's all. What he wants is for her not to be miserable. He holds her until he feels her quiet, until she understands that she is safe; that all he wants from her is this close holding, this understanding.