When she saw the glass-enclosed lights dangling from the ceiling and the full yellow orchids in glass tunnels, she smiled. It was a beautiful hotel, just as she had expected.

The bar was filled with velvet couches and plush chairs and the menu was just as she had hoped: innovative and snappy, with pages upon pages of creative drinks.

Maybe a drink would calm her nerves. The mid-day sun shone white in the cold. He smiled when he saw her. She smiled back, but wasn’t sure if it was driven by anxiety or joy.

Through the lunch, she listened to her voice jabbering forward and felt his breath rise and fall. He was familiar like a favorite teddy bear but not essentially like a lover.

The tea-soaked salmon tasted fishy. The tuna was over-cooked. Even the dessert was banal – caramelized fruit with vanilla ice cream. The hotel could purport world-class decor but it was driven by the provincial sensibility of her city, which was fine for an urban market or bread bakery but not for a downtown hotel.

In the aftermath, as she whisked him to the airport in time for the last flight of the day, she knew that she was fulfilling Rilke’s famous quote: “For one human being to love another, that is the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test of proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

She could care about him deeply and have fond memories of hope – but he was not the right man for her.

Her time was precious; soon her kids would come back. And as she drove away from the curb, his back turned to rush into the frenetic terminal, she knew she would prefer infinitely her own pillowtop bed to an austere hotel room with a played-out fantasy and a person from her past.

And then she understood: the bathroom at the restored hotel, all early 20th century tile with a grotto shower and sleek sink but then the garbage can – a black plastic Bed Bath special in the far corner, hard to find and ultimately unsophisticated. It had been a metaphor, a message, a sign that only she could read.

The evening fell a cloak before her and she went about her life, speaking on behalf of clients and smiling before strangers. She declined a drink with a nice man to carry home penne with eggplant and tomatoes.

That night, as her head hit the pillow, she had no regrets and no trouble falling asleep.

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