Memory and Isolation in a Santiago Hotel

by Jennifer Roberts

An American expat returns to her adopted home in Santiago, Chile. While undergoing the mandatory quarantine, she finds ample time to reflect on the people and places left behind.

My alarm, soft nature sounds from my meditation app, start to fill our small hotel room, and I question why I even bothered to set it. There isn’t much reason to wake up at any given time here. Breakfast will be delivered soon, the room will clean itself once we have vacated it, there are no pets to feed, and I don’t have any evening plans to get in the way of doing my remote work whenever I please. But now I’m awake. I swing myself off the bed, take two steps to the right, and curl into the window bench overlooking the entrance to the hotel where we are spending our five days of quarantine. 

There’s a seven-story apartment building slightly to the left, and I can see into each living space, intimacy I shouldn’t be taking advantage of, but I’m craving any kind of connection outside this room. An older man, 65 perhaps, sits at a small metal table with a newspaper open in front of him, the morning sun massaging his bald head and white sideburns as he leans back, relaxed. I decide to call him Esteban. There’s something satisfying in watching someone who doesn’t know they’re being watched—this kind of authenticity is hard to find these days. We want people to watch us, to see us. Not Esteban. He seems content to sit alone in his space, reading about the world outside as the sun warms his small apartment. I crack the window, wondering what kind of conversation he and I would have if we could breach the short distance between our two third-story rooms and wishing he would look up so we could make eye contact for a moment.

My phone pings, a picture of my two-month-old nephew from my sister. He’s in a white sleeper, laying on his changing pad and smiling into the camera. Only four days ago, he was sprawled across my legs, asleep, as I rocked him in my parents’ living room. My sister and I talk about the new documentary she just watched, our conversation flowing effortlessly in English and sister-speak. My boyfriend turns his head as we banter and laugh, doing his best to catch the ideas that jostle around the room. My mom peeks her head in from the kitchen before going to the basement to smoke. I tell her for the hundredth time that cigarettes are terrible in general but even worse if you have Parkinson’s. She just waves a hand and catches her balance before tackling the stairs. 

The wind starts to pick up outside as a warm front moves in across the flat land of Illinois. Felipe asks nervously if it could bring a tornado, and we shrug. It’s always possible. But the rain and thunder pass quickly, leaving only a few broken branches outside. 

On the plane back to Chile, there are only 8 of us. Chile has closed its borders, so most of the original passengers had to cancel their flight. Foreigners are only welcome to leave; Chileans and residents are only welcome to enter. We’re just lucky they didn’t cancel the flight altogether. There are more crew than passengers on the plane, putting the crew in an abnormally lighthearted mood—“Welcome to your private flight!” They tell us we can move to whichever seat we please, use a whole row to sleep if we like. I do this as soon as I finish our midnight dinner. When I wake up at 3 am, Felipe hasn’t slept. He’s been taking pictures of shooting stars, and he shows me the long line streaking across his phone screen. We see them every clear night on our piece of land in southern Chile. The lights of our small town don’t reach us; the only light pollution comes from a nearby engineered wood factory that rumbles us to sleep each night. 

Our home is beautiful, open, peaceful. And I don’t want to go back. Covid has led us all to crave a sense of normalcy, but it forced me to question whether the normal I have is the normal I want when this is all over. Far from family and friends, in a culture I don’t want to conform to, designing the eco-friendly lifestyle I thought I wanted and finding only loneliness in that pursuit. 

I look up and find that Esteban is gone. I wait, but he doesn’t come back. He has a life to live, something to move for. I wonder if the coming years will find me moving as well. 

There’s a lone rose bush in the garden below Esteban’s window—finicky creatures. I’ve always found them impossible to grow. It sits in a tight corner where the sun barely reaches. Maybe that’s the secret—make them work for it, and they’ll decide life is worth living. 

I get to work, several hours pass. Traffic picks up outside the hotel, and I wander over to the window to inhale some of Santiago’s air, unstained by our own breath. Esteban has returned to his table, this time with a woman, probably his wife. He isn’t who I thought he was, happy in his unending solitude. I suppose none of us are, though. Isn’t that what we’ve learned? 

As nighttime shifts the lighting in our room, we lose track of time. Dinner comes. We put on a movie, close the curtains, set our trash in the hall, (peek into that otherworld outside the door), notice how messy the room is getting as we hang our masks on two coat hooks, call our parents, click in a few pieces of a puzzle, take a shower, glance at the movie as it ends, return to the puzzle, check our PCR results, watch music videos on MTV, fall asleep. 

I don’t find the future in my dreams anymore. I find the decisions I made, the people I left behind, the places I’ve been, the places I wish I were now. As the morning squeezes through a crack in the curtains, I open my eyes and find the decisions I didn’t make but still could if the future ever comes back. 

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