We didn’t have a room. It was my responsibility to book the rooms. That’s how we divvied it up when we planned our trip in L.A.; Joe was responsible for transportation to the wedding, Mike would handle transportation post wedding, and I would book rooms for our travels after the wedding. I did make an earnest effort. Actually I spent way too much time researching our options. It’s what I did during any spare time of my work day as it got closer to the wedding date. I agonized over it. I searched every five star and four star hotel I could to find a price that was reasonable. All my suggestions were too pricey and vetoed by Joe and Mike. They wanted to take over the task, but I knew they would just choose wherever was cheapest and didn’t have dead bodies lying around. I couldn’t do that. I could only stay at an impeccably clean room with tasteful décor. So I kept saying to them that I would handle it and had narrowed down our options to a few solid choices. I was lying to stall. I knew what constituted four stars in Europe was equivalent to two stars in the U.S., so I had to find at least a four star hotel. I would have felt even better if it was a luxury brand I was familiar with, such as the Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, so there wouldn’t be any surprises. I didn’t have any luck. I didn’t find anything and couldn’t bring myself to book the cheaper alternatives. Joe and Mike agreed to just do it college-style, book as we arrived in each city. There was no other option by the time we left. I knew they were annoyed about this, but I tried to remedy the fallout as best I could and actually did a fair job.
But that was all before we found ourselves standing in the train station just outside the Piazza San Marco in Venice, tired from the long train ride following the wedding, and now standing under an unexpectedly scorching sun, with no hotel to retreat to. Fortunately our friend Molly, who was also at the wedding, had arrived in Venice before we had and may have done some preliminary reconnaissance. I was hoping strongly for the sake of minimizing all my travel companions’ annoyance that she had found something. Something that was very clean and nice.
“Everything is booked,” she said after waving us over to where she was standing at the train terminal. That’s how she greeted us. “We’re fucked,” she added. They all looked at me.
“There has to be something Mol,” I said. “Every room in Venice can’t be booked. The city has had hundreds of years of tourism. I’m sure they have learned how to prepare for a busy travel season,” I said. I was mad at Molly for riling everyone up.
“Yeah?” she asked as a challenge. “I asked the tourist office there,” she said waving her hand at one of the booths behind her, “to check everywhere that could accommodate four people for two nights. Even every dinky pensionne. All booked!”
“Ok well there’s no use arguing about it here,” said Mike, the ever pragmatic peace-maker. “Let’s just head to the tourist office and ask about something for one night and take it from there.” Molly and I briefly glared at each other before we all started toward the tourism office. I couldn’t blame Molly. She was the most impatient of all my friends. And despite her awareness of my increasing behavioral peculiarities, this wedding trip had taxed her beyond her threshold tolerance of me, which was low to start with. She wasn’t cutting me any more slack. She was letting me have it when I deserved it. Somehow I was able to keep my other friends still at bay. I was able to keep them thinking it was almost amusing. That Ben was so quirky and therefore hilarious. Having them view me as increasingly clownish and something to laugh at was better than the alternative opinion they should have formed. I wouldn’t have been able to bear the judgment that would come from the truth.
“Ciao. Come posso aiutarlo?” asked a short man from inside the Tourist Bureau.
“Oh Hi. I was just here? Remember? About a room for two nights?” Mol said in response to the diminutive man behind the very large gun-metal grey desk inside the impossibly small “office.” The desk was littered with brochures, phone books, maps, and a few dog-eared tourism magazines.
“Ah! Si, Si! Senora, Si,” said the man smiling even bigger now. “I still have no cancellations for you however.”
“Can you check for availability for just tonight?” asked Mike.
“Si si. For how many people?” asked the man.
There are four of us.”
“Quatro, si. Ecco! There is a pensionne nearby here that has a room for just one night. For tonight!” said the tourist bureau man with some enthusiasm, or perhaps just usual Italian flare.
“That’s great! We will take it,” said Mike.
“Wait,” I said. “We don’t even know where it is, or the size, or how much they’re charging, or – ”
“Who cares,” interrupted Molly. “We don’t have much choice and it’s just a place to sleep.”
“Yeah but what if it’s awful and in a really bad location or something?” I asked feeling panicked about the prospect of staying in some random pensionne with Italian standards of what constituted acceptable cleanliness at discounted rates.
“Ok, you don’t have a say in this,” Molly said to me. “We’re scrambling for a place to stay because you neglected to plan ahead so now that we have, by some miracle, found a place, you have to just deal with all your weird hang-ups because we’re staying there. If you don’t want to stay there, you’re welcome to keep looking for something on your own.”
I absolutely hated Molly at that moment. Of course she was in the right and everything she was saying made perfect sense, but I didn’t care. I was being pushed into a corner without an escape plan which wasn’t something my OCD generally allowed. I decided to concede this one. I would find a way out later.
“Fine,” I said “let’s just book it for the night.”
“We are,” said Molly. “”It’s just a place to sleep. That’s all. We’re in Venice. It’s not like we will be hanging out in the hotel room anyway.” Molly was trying to offer some comfort in the limited way she knew how. And since it was from her and I knew her patience with me had been taxed, I appreciated the semi-effort at appeasement.
“Yeah, you’re right,” I said.
Yay! We’re all friends again!” said Joe and then he threw his arms around us both.
“Let’s just get there and drop off our bags so we can get something to eat and start exploring,” Mike said.
After we confirmed our reservation at the tourist bureau, we headed toward the pensionne where we were to spend the night. While the others felt a sense of relief that we had a place to rest and sleep, I felt anger at myself for not having booked something to my liking in advance, coupled with anxiety about entering a pensionne with questionable sanitation with my uncontaminated bag containing my uncontaminated travel clothes and items. I would soon see my fears about the condition of our lodging would be realized beyond the scope of what I had prepared myself for.
There were thirty-nine steps to the top floor where our room in the poorly lit pensionne was located. The steps were wooden, steep, and climbed in a spiral. All of which would have been acceptable had there not been thirty-nine of them. An odd number that didn’t feel right at all. It was a dubious start to our stay. I stood back of the others as Joe opened the door to our room. After he did so and Molly and Mike followed him into the room, I moved toward the doorway and was able to glance at the horror that lay within.
There was red everywhere. I hate the color red in general and in this small room, the wallpaper was a patterned red, the faded and unkempt carpet was red and the less than fresh looking bed covers had red incorporated in them. I was repulsed. I felt like I was in a Valentine’s themed room that hadn’t been updated since the 1970’s. I didn’t even want to set my luggage down on the putrid carpet for fear of the human secretions and drippings it had collected over the years.
“Do you guys mind if I take a quick shower?” Joe asked.
“Do it. I need to lie down for a little anyway. I’m so fucking tired!” Molly said.
“Ok who is sleeping with whom in which bed,” asked Mike indicating the two queen beds that barely fit into the room.
“I don’t care,” said Molly.
“Me neither,” said Joe from inside the bathroom.
I just need to be in the bed next to the window,” said Molly
“Yeah me too,” Mike said.
“Ok then it’s you guys in one bed and Ben and I in the other,” Joe called out from inside the bathroom as he turned on the shower.
“I’m not sleeping in that bed,” I said flatly.
“We can call up for a cot for you,” Molly said to me.
“That’s ok, no need,” I said.
“What do you mean? You need to sleep somewhere,” Molly said
“Look Ben, why don’t you take the bed with Joe and I will sleep in the bed with Mol,” said Mike, thinking my reluctance was to share a bed with Molly who snored and was a notorious blanket hog.
“It’s fine. You take the bed. I won’t sleep in the beds. And I definitely won’t sleep in a cot from this place so don’t even bother with that idea,” I said.
“Ben. Where will you sleep? The ground?” asked Molly.
“Yeah, right,” I said.
“Ok then. Why won’t you sleep in one of the beds? They’re perfectly fine.”
“I know,” I said, despite feeling otherwise. “I just don’t want to sleep in them.”
“The beds are fine. We’re all sleeping in them. They wash the sheets,” Molly said.
“Ok, well then I don’t understand. Is it the room? Because it’s just for one night. We can look for another room later, but for now, you have to sleep somewhere, right?” asked Molly getting exasperated.
“Look, I’m fine,” I said. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine, ok.”
“Just don’t worry about it,” I said.
“Ok. Whatever…” said Molly who had grown tired of continuing the conversation, knowing we were just going in circles. I was glad to have the bed debate end.
Conversations where I led the confused party in circles wore on me as well. And since I had them very often, they were routine for me, but I had less patience for carrying one each time I had to have one. Someone, like Molly, would ask why I would opt to do something that didn’t make sense over a more logical choice. Since I didn’t want to have the very involved “I have severe OCD” conversation at any given moment and since it usually fell on deaf ears anyway and created more confusion than it would clear up, I just would be evasive and vague about my motivations for choosing the illogical choice in a situation until the person with whom I was having the conversation would grow tired of having it, which usually was not long after it started.
An unfortunate side effect was that the person I had that circular conversation with would also get very frustrated and this feeling of annoyance toward me would carryover and often accumulate. Essentially it was among the many reasons it grew harder and harder to like me, or at least to want to be around me, and eventually to just be able to tolerate me.
“I’m done!” declared Joe as he burst open the bathroom door. “Man I needed that. So good to feel fresh and clean.” It’s a very fleeting sensation, I thought bitterly.
“How’s the water pressure?” Mike asked.
“It’s not bad actually,” said Joe, “and if you angle the – ow!” It seemed Joe stubbed his toe as he exited the bathroom. He was in very apparent pain because he stood frozen for several seconds grimacing and holding both his toe and breath before finally exclaiming, “FUCK!” while simultaneously throwing his bag of toiletries onto the mangy red carpet floor. It was this latter action that seized my attention.
As Joe continued to yell obscenities while Mike and Molly shook their heads at him, I fixated my gaze upon the bag of toiletries on the ground. I was baffled. The image of his toiletry bag, containing his razors, soap and other products he used on his face and body, laying there on the putrid carpet that had been trampled by years of strangers’ shoes and held traces of God knows what….well it just wasn’t computing for me. How could he have deliberately thrown his toiletry bag, his toiletry bag!, onto that that stank flooring? The ground! His toiletry bag with his personal items that needed to be kept sanitary were on the ground, due to his own will. It wasn’t making any sense. Unless he planned not to ever use any of the items in the toiletry bag again and transfer the bag from the floor straight to the trash bin. However, I didn’t think that was Joe’s plan, so seeing the evidence of this complete contradiction of behavior to mine was bewildering.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck meeeee! Ah Fuck!” Joe yelled as he held the foot with the stubbed toe in his hands while hopping around in his underwear on one leg.
“Is it bleeding?” asked Mike.
“I don’t think so. It just fucking hurts like hell!” said Joe.
“Yeah we got that part. Run it in cold water,” said Mike who had recently graduated from med school and therefore assumed an authoritative tone as if years of expensive training to be a doctor were needed to give this very basic advice.
I kept looking at Joe’s bag…on the carpet, until he picked it up and tossed it onto a bed. The bed cover that almost never gets washed wasn’t much better than the carpet. I had to quit thinking about Joe’s bag. But I couldn’t. I was in the thought-spiral. Perhaps if we got out of the room.
“Let’s get some lunch,” I said. Joe looked over at me.
“I almost self-amputated my toe and all you can think of is lunch?” Joe asked.
“Your toe will be fine. Just get dressed and let’s get out of here. I don’t want to spend our time in Venice sitting in this shit hole. And I’m about to pass out from lack of nourishment, “I said. Joe just blinked a few times and shook his head at me.
“I need something to eat too,” said Molly, and with that Joe shrugged.
“Well it’s a good thing I didn’t impale myself or anything otherwise I would be left here to bleed to death while you guys were shoveling your faces with gnocchi,” said Joe.
“Please can we just head out?” I asked.
“Fine. Shit. Just gimme a sec to get my pants on if that’s ok?” said Joe as he unzipped his large duffel bag.
Later, as we walked around outside, I was able to suspend, well perhaps more like diminish my heightened anxiety by gazing at the amazing beauty abound in Venice. I love taking in history in the form of architecture and Venice afforded a feast. The amazing cityscapes at nearly every turn gave me and my racing mind a much welcome distraction. We went to a quaint café and had paninis and cappuccinos. Mike and I noted that the cappuccinos were the best we ever had and for an extended moment I was able to relax. Sipping the best cappuccino I had ever tasted while sitting at a café near a canal in Venice wasn’t lost on me. I was able to relish it. I won this moment. (To this day that cappuccino still holds as the best I have ever had. Perhaps its contribution to affording me some respite from OCD amplified its flavor.) However, seeing the beauty around me without OCD filters was fleeting.
After our coffee and meal, we decided to explore the more crowded streets and a somewhat unhealthy looking tourist ambling by made certain I was back in OCD land post-haste.
I was very annoyed because we were planning to visit Basilica di San Marco
in Piazza San Marco later and now I felt that experience would be somewhat tainted. We would be taking pictures from the outside and inside of the Cathedral and I despaired that now those pictures would just remind me of my OCD trigger in Venice, which would be the catalyst for OCD thoughts in the moment of viewing the pictures.
I wanted to suggest that we should postpone our tour of Venice’s cathedrals for the following day, but knew that would be met with resistance and annoyance. I was always trying to adjust plans at the last minute without sound explanation as to why. I couldn’t ever own up to it just being due to the complete irrationality of my OCD trigger. Instead I would endeavor to validate the flimsy reason with a poor excuse cobbled together on the spot.
And I also knew that even if I started the day fresh tomorrow, with the intent of complete non-contamination (mostly of thought), life was unpredictable so I could, and very likely would, incur another OCD trigger tomorrow that could possibly exceed the severity of today’s. I had to proceed with the tour as planned and just fight the demons and accept I would not have a moment of serenity in gazing at Venice’s religious architectural tributes. Quite the contrary, my tour of Venice for the day was ruined and would feel tainted. I had to accept that.
Basilica di San Marco was as grand and inspired as I had imagined it would be. I just wasn’t able to take it in as much as I wanted because the visions were competing with the ever present thoughts. Still, I tried to concentrate on the small gold tiles that covered the ceiling and the bronze sculptures at the altar. The metallic colors and surfaces felt cold and clean.
After the Basilica, we found a quaint place to eat dinner (per Molly’s insistence that it couldn’t feel “generic”) followed later by gelato for dessert in the Jewish quarter, known as the Ghetto. I learned that the term Ghetto referring to poorer neighborhoods originated from here, but no Ghetto I have ever “passed through” was as picturesque as this.
As the night started to wind down we headed toward our awful pensionne. I walked with my friends to the hostel knowing very well that I wouldn’t be spending the night there. However, I didn’t want to rouse all the debate about why I wouldn’t repose in those beds again, so I just accompanied them all back to the room. Despite being worn out, Molly called her assistant in LA since it was daytime work hours there and started returning calls. It was interesting for me to eves drop and hear the stark contrast from Molly the always-about-fun-and-immature-antics girl to Molly the stern-humorless-writer’s-agent. Before her assistant could even complete reading a name from her phone sheet, Molly would curtly state, “Get him,” or “Next” in such a tone that one would think she was in a bitter fight with her assistant. However, Molly’s agent-to-assistant tone was just par for the course in the talent agency world. The stern, methodical quips tersely barked into the phone had a rhythmic cadence I found almost soothing. I was delaying thinking about where I would sleep, yes, but was also somehow entertained by Molly’s interaction with her assistant. It reminded me of how trivial and banal our entertainment culture lives were when taken out of context. Here we were, in centuries old Venice, so steeped with history and grandeur, that a call back to Los Angeles involving a conversation about a television writer’s contract clauses seemed absurd.
I was able to view my life in Los Angeles as myopic in scope and feel there was a greater world that I could escape to, literally. Away from the insular bubble of Los Angeles’s Hollywood culture, I was able to fathom not being stuck in that bubble. Molly’s very Hollywood conversation taking place all the way across the globe in Venice, afforded me the literal and conceptual distance to feel like I could break away. I could be living a different life, somewhere out there in a different world. Perhaps this was the main reason Molly’s work call was affording me such calm.
The call eventually ended. Molly and the others got ready for bed while I stood in the doorway. I didn’t dare sit on the bedspreads that probably hadn’t received a proper washing in a very long time. I just tried to stay out of the way so as to not be asked why I wasn’t getting ready for bed, while my friends were brushing teeth and removing contact lenses. Eventually, they all got under the covers. I asked them if they wanted me to turn off the light before I left.
“Wait, where are you goin’?” asked Mike.
“Just heading out for a quick walked around,” I said.
“Around where?” asked Mike.
“Just around the Piazza or something. I just need to get some air. I will be back soon.”
“Wait. Are you being serious?” asked Molly. “It’s almost one in the morning and you “got air” for hours. We were outside all day.”
“I know. I’m just not sleepy at all. I’m actually really awake so I thought I should walk it off a little.” I was lying. I was so ready to crash. However, my anxiety adrenaline would be the fuel that would keep me from falling asleep and keep me moving as I explored the city.
“Wait. Do you want to get killed? Just read or something!” said Molly
“Just let him take a walk if he wants,” said Joe. “Just take the key with you. And turn off the lights will you?”
“Yeah I just need to work off this energy,” I stated. After I could see that everyone was in bed and not observing me, I grabbed a key with tissue, wrapped it up and placed it into my back pocket. Then I flipped the switch with another tissue and grabbed the door handle with that same tissue to close the door. Just as the door was about to close, I heard Molly say, “is he seriously not kidding?”
The Venice night felt colder than it was around dinner time, but it was still the kind of cold that was inviting. I started walking down a wide cobblestone path just past the pensionne and soon found myself within the canals where the walking paths narrowed substantially. The water in the canals was an inky black with dispersed spots of light reflecting off the surface from the windows of the centuries old residences that lined both sides of each canal.
I was somewhat directionless, but that was fine. I thought I was walking in the general direction toward Piazza San Marco but wouldn’t be bothered if I weren’t. I just wanted to take in the city. Venice at night was reminiscent as a setting in a Shakespearean play or an Edgar Allen Poe story. There was something both Elizabethan and sinister in the narrow cobble-stone paths leading through centuries old alleys and seemingly secret passages. The sparsely furnished city lamps allowed for moonlight to serve as the primary form of illumination upon many of the corridors and chipped, stone stairwells that I was cautiously navigating.
As it grew later, the dominant sound of human chatter was gradually being replaced by the sounds of water softly splashing against the stone canal walls, the unsteady shuffling of a lone pair of shoes angling toward a place of rest, and an occasional jingle of keys or loose change accidentally dropped onto the now desolate cobblestone piazzas. I followed the occasional source of sound emanating from possible human activity. Doing so took me through crumbling archways and up well-worn stone stairways. Often I ended up isolated in a slumbering residential section. Yet, as I ventured further on, still without aim, I somehow managed to come upon a rather jovial crowd in a street that lead to the main ports. The crowd was handsomely dressed and some donned masks. There was spirited laughter, probably coaxed with the aid of a fair amount of alcohol consumption as some of the crowd was still carrying half-drank champagne flutes with them as they walked outside.
Curious about this lively bunch at such a late hour, I followed their merry progression toward the water. At the water’s edge, there was a glow and steam emitting from a small opening in a wall of stone. The well-dressed crowed was lining up at the hole and as I got closer, I could see it was a late night vendor selling warm pastries and coffees. As the night had become considerably chilly, the warm food was very enticing. I walked to the edge of the stone dock towards the vendor. Looking out, all I could see was black ocean waves dipping in and out of the moonlight. The sound of water lapping at the stone dock and hitting the wall’s edge was intermingling with the crowd’s giggling and spoken Italian. I felt in my pocket and found a five euro note. That should be enough.
I took my place in line, trying to decide if I would ask for my baked good in English or Italian. Insecurity swayed me to ask in English. I bought a bear claw. It was still warm and as I folded back the wax paper it was wrapped in, I took measured bites as I wanted it to last. I felt I was in another world. Somewhere I almost half belonged. I should have filled my post college life with experiences like this. Instead I lost years doing the same, mundane, thankless job in a city I had grown bitter toward. Again pangs of regret tainted a happy moment. Why couldn’t I just appreciate this for what it was and not color it with regret?
After the last bite of my bear claw, I followed some in the crowd on a stone walkway that led up from the stone dock. It brought me to another section of the Piazza San Marco. There I understood why these late night revelers were so well-heeled. A large red banner strewn across an intricately carved façade let me know they were attendees of the Bianalli, or International Venice Film Festival. Apparently even escaping to another world wasn’t enough to get me away from the entertainment industry. And just as in LA, I again felt like an outsider gazing in. Suddenly Venice felt less like mine to cherish and more like an elite playground upon which I was just trespassing.
I walked toward the center of Piazza San Marco and looked around. I still loved it. At least this nightly excursion afforded me some distraction from that awful pensionne and my OCD. Still, the lack of rest suddenly hit me hard. I hadn’t slept a wink and needed to sit. Some of the café’s on the Piazza’s periphery still had their outdoor tables and chairs out, chained together. I didn’t know if the chain was more to prevent theft or keep furniture from floating away when the tide flooded into the Piazza. Whatever the reason, I was just glad the tables and chairs were there.
I sat on a chair and eventually placed my head down on my folded arms that already lay on the table. I was very cold and strongly craving to be wrapped in a blanket for warmth. Despite the cold that enveloped me and permeated my clothing, I was so beat that eventually I passed out. When I awoke not much later, it was dawn in the Piazza. It was cold and pigeons had started gathering. It was just me and the pigeons. I was groggy and started shivering so I stood to head back to the pensionne. But then it occurred to me; I was in the Venice’s Piazza San Marco at dawn. I was surrounded by ornate history revealing itself to me in the most beautiful, natural light. I wasn’t ready to walk away from it yet. This was so relaxing. This was so different from life in LA. Standing there, I remembered the confident kid I used to be when I had so much promise ahead of me. Standing at the Piazza in the crisp morning air felt like my boarding school days when I would take day trips to Milan and stand in awe in front its Duomo Cathedral. I felt international then, worldly. I traveled regularly. In LA my daily, traffic-jammed commute to and from work was my main and almost only form of “travel” now. I needed to just think about being here now. And about how I could get back to this place. Back to that place.
When I eventually did make my way back to the gross pensionne, my travel companions were all awake, but still lying in bed. “You’re alive!” Joe declared.
“Ha yeah. Do you guys want to get some breakfast?” I asked.
“Um, where were you all night?” Molly asked. I should have known it would come from her.
“Yeah, I woke up like at three a.m. and didn’t see you in the room and was somewhat scared that something had happened to you,” said Joe. “I woke up Mike and was like ‘where’s Ben?'”
“I let you guys know I wanted to walk around,” I said.
Um, you walked around all night?!” asked Molly.
“Yeah I was feeling wide awake and just walked around.”
“Where?!” asked Molly.
“Just around Venice. I was just exploring and checking out different pathways.”
“In the middle of the night? In a foreign city? That’s psychotic,” said Molly.
“Did you sleep at all?” asked Joe.
“Yeah, for about an hour, hour and a half or so. I really wasn’t that tired,” I lied.
“Where?” asked Mike.
“There were some outdoor tables and chairs in the Piazza San Marco. I sat at one and took a nap. It was nice really,” I said.
“What?! Are you fucking kidding me?” asked Molly. Joe and Mike started to chuckle.
“Ben. You….you’re something else,” said Joe laughingly.
“I seriously can’t deal with this so early,” said Molly getting out of bed and heading to her suitcase. “I’m taking a shower.”
“What? I got to explore Venice. How often will I be here?” I asked, but Molly just rolled her eyes at me, walked into the bathroom with her shower supplies, and closed the bathroom door behind her.