At the opening of Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel, we see Clare arrive in Havana, Cuba, to attend the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema. She was supposed to be there with her film scholar husband, Richard, but he was hit by a car five weeks prior. Clare decides to acquaint herself with the newly tourist-filled streets of Havana, and as she passes a museum, discovers her husband wearing a white linen suit she’s never seen before. But he is supposed to be dead. Grief-stricken and baffled, Clare tails Richard, clocking his every move. As the distinction between reality and fantasy starts to blur, Clare’s role in her husband’s death and reappearance is called into question, and truths about their marriage begin to surface. Hailed as “[a] future cult classic” by The New York Times Book Review, The Third Hotel is a haunting, beautifully shape-shifting novel from an inventive author at the height of her narrative powers.
What was she doing in Havana?
A simple question and yet she could not find a simple answer. She imagined bumping into someone she had known in upstate New York, in her former life. She would see this person taking photos in the Plaza de la Catedral or on the Paseo del Prado. They would look up from their cameras. They would call her name and wave. They would make remarks about coincidences, about the world being a very small place, and when the inevitable question came—What was she doing in Havana?—she would have no idea how to explain herself.
She might have said,
I am not who you think I am.
She might have said,
I am experiencing a dislocation of reality.
She had come to Havana for the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema. She had come to meet the director of the first horror film ever to be made in Cuba. She had come to do the things her husband had planned on doing himself but was in no position to do any longer. The official festival hotel stood tall in Vedado. An oval driveway, ringed with royal palms, led visitors to the entrance; in the back, a grand terrace presided over the sea. The hotel was a landmark, positioned on a knoll, the spires visible from even a great distance. Her own hotel was located on a sloped street near the university. She had taken to calling it the Third Hotel because in the airport taxi she had misstated the address, been dropped in the wrong neighborhood, and pleaded with the concierges at two different hotels for directions to her intended destination.
In the lobby of the festival hotel, a mural of a forest spanned the length of a wall. On her first night, in the middle of a reception, she found herself standing in front of that mural. She peered into the shadows, imagined the secrets living in there. She rubbed the green leaves. The paint was smooth, the treetops tinged with gold. She licked a tree and tasted chalk, feeling wild.
How many drinks? asked the festival rep who escorted her out of the lobby and into the night, his Spanish sharp with disdain. He was a young man in a sand-colored blazer, slightly too large in the shoulders, and a white T-shirt printed with the festival logo, a laminated badge beating softly against his chest. She noticed the fine hairs on his upper lip, the soft swell of his earlobes.
Siete. Outside the streets were shadowed, the air lush with heat.
What’s your name? he asked. Where are you staying?
Her body remained rooted to the sidewalk, but already her mind was slouching down the sea-dark streets, past the Wi-Fi park, a concrete half circle where people sat hunched in the shadows and tapped away at phones, back into the Third Hotel, and up the steep staircase. The front desk was overseen by a woman in her twenties named Isa. When she checked in, Isa had recorded her name and passport number in a black ledger, her penmanship immaculate; each letter reminded Clare of a miniature house. Isa had warned her to never use the elevator—the last time a guest had tried, the doors got stuck and had to be pried open with meat hooks. Clare was on the fifth floor, the rooms arranged in an oval around a spiraling metal staircase that led to the rooftop. Potted plants sat at the foot of the stairs, green faces tipped upward like subjects awaiting benediction. After a cursory examination of the elevator, Clare suspected the vertical jacks needed replacing. For years it had been her job to notice such details, and now, in Havana, vacation days were flying like birds from her hands.
Seven, she said again. Her palms were sweating. Her teeth ached.
She could walk around an imposter and who would be able to tell otherwise; this was the seduction of traveling unaccompanied.
Here she had given everyone who asked a different name. Laurie, Ripley, Sidney. She had claimed to be a film critic for a newspaper. She could walk around an imposter and who would be able to tell otherwise; this was the seduction of traveling unaccompanied. No one had asked her age, but if they did she would have told them the truth, thirty-seven. She understood that some women would want to do the opposite: actual name, fake age.
My name is Arlo, the young man said. I’m a documentarian and you’re lucky you’re not being filmed right now.
Her real name was Clare. She had never been to Havana before, and when she stepped off the airplane and onto the tarmac, on the second day of December, in a state of delirium that made every surface look like it had just started to melt, a hot wind nearly pushed her to the ground.
None of this was the part that would have been difficult to explain.
Two flights to reach Havana, the second on a very small plane. On the descent she had expected to see the ocean flapping below; instead green fields yawned into the distance, the grass rippled with fog. For two minutes and thirteen seconds, she was convinced the pilot, for no reason that she could understand, was going to crash the plane into the earth, killing them all. She knew how long this feeling lasted because she timed it on her watch.
In Havana, she would see dead streetlights and magnificent boulevards, trees bowing toward each other to form an airstrip of shade; on the pink granite path of the Prado, a man walking two silver huskies in harnesses, shirtless Rollerbladers whipping past the dogs. She would see security cameras with necks that reminded her of white cranes and a neighborhood library with a sign that read MUERTE AL INVASOR and a dachshund chained to a stool, in the olive attire of a revolutionary. The city was an entirely different place in the daytime than at night. She found homages to artists of all nationalities—the Bertolt Brecht Cultural Center, a park dedicated to Victor Hugo, a bust of Mozart. She would walk for miles without seeing a grocery but pass a dozen places to buy pizza or fruit or ice cream. Soaring brutalist structures severed blocks of colonial houses, with their arches and columns and balconies. Buildings on the edge of total ruin stood adjacent to hotels with doormen. In Plaza de San Francisco, sunburned families in al fresco cafés, babies howling miserably in high chairs, and a flock of pigeons that didn’t fly anywhere—that just circled and circled. In Havana, she would see her husband for the first time in thirty-five days.
She was scheduled to stay for one week. Since the trip had been intended for both of them, everything had been booked for two: two visas purchased online; an empty seat next to her on the flights; two sheets of tickets for the films. She kept the spare items in a drawer in her room. She told herself she was setting them aside for a person who had yet to arrive.
On her first day at the festival, she wandered the conference rooms housing press events, savagely hungover, surrounded by people with laminated badges, people who looked like they knew what they were doing. The director she sought was named Yuniel Mata. For him, she had a list of questions, written out on the plane. In her hotel room, she had been practicing her greeting in the bathroom mirror. Hello, she would say to her reflection, in her very best Spanish. My husband was a great admirer of what you are doing. Yuniel Mata’s film was called Revolución Zombi. He had shot it entirely on digital and entirely in Havana and all for two million dollars—facts her husband, a film studies professor, had found extraordinary. His specialty was horror. She’d always thought this sounded like a made-up job, and when she had too much to drink at parties she shared this thought with their friends. The festival was her husband’s world and she had not anticipated it being so difficult to navigate.
On her second day, she attended a press event with Yuniel Mata and two producers in a conference room with chandeliers and bloodred carpeting. A fake Christmas tree stood in a corner, the branches alight with silver balls. She had to concentrate very hard to track the conversation, a terrible pressure gathering in the back of her skull. In college, she spent a semester in Madrid, followed by a disastrous summer stint as a nanny for a moneyed family in Salamanca; her Spanish was still serviceable, though gaps in understanding kept taking her by surprise. Blank spaces would appear where there should have been a word, a thought.
According to the program, the lead actress, Agata Alonso, was scheduled to participate in the panel. Her bio noted that she was Cuban-born, a current resident of Spain, and best known for a recurring role in a popular Spanish telenovela. Revolución Zombi was her first feature. The night before, Clare overheard two men talking about how this actress had failed to show up for the opening gala. She was not in her room or answering her phone. No one had said she was missing, but at the same time her whereabouts were not exactly known. Now she was not at the press event and the panel had not accounted for her absence.
Instead they discussed the zombie school they had established to instruct extras in proper lurching and vocalization and makeup. One extra had gotten carried away and started biting shoulders. A podiatrist had found a bloodied shirt in the gutter and called the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.
On the plane, Clare had been seated next to a film critic from Rio, and she noticed this same critic, Davi, near the front of the conference room, next to Arlo. As they disembarked, Davi had called the sun in Havana prodigious, even in December, and advised her to be careful with the weather. Davi had a compact, athletic build. He wore fashionable glasses. His eyebrows were two perfect dark arches. When she replied that a childhood in Florida had taught her all she needed to know about heat, he’d patted the canvas shell of her backpack, smiled a smile of vague pity, and wished her a good trip.
When a young woman rose, Clare could tell she was nervous to ask her question. She pressed the tip of her pencil to her notepad. Why make a horror film? she asked, her voice faltering slightly on the why. Why not make a movie about things that really happen?
The producers looked to Yuniel Mata, who was already leaning forward in his chair, readying his reply. He wore black slacks and a black T-shirt and neon green sneakers, thin rope bracelets on his wrists. Casual yet sharp. His hair was just long enough to be secured in a ponytail, and he was tall and slender, like her husband.
Mata said to plunge a viewer into a state of terror meant to take away their compass, their tools for navigating the world, and to replace it with a compass that told a different kind of truth. The trick was ensuring the viewer was so consumed by fright that they didn’t even notice this exchange was being made; it was a secret transaction between their imagination and the film, and when they left the theater, those new truths would go with them, swimming like eels under the skin.
The foundation of horror is a dislocation of reality, a dislocation designed to reveal the reality that has been there all along.
Besides, he added, raising a finger, the foundation of horror is a dislocation of reality, a dislocation designed to reveal the reality that has been there all along, and such dislocations happen all the time.
Afterward Clare waited in a line to speak with the director. When only the nervous young woman stood between them, an assistant in a navy skirtsuit appeared and whisked him away.
That evening brought the inaugural screening of Revolución Zombi, at Cine Charlie Chaplin. Clare had traveled over a thousand miles to see this film and yet when she came upon the marquee sign that bore the title a very strange thing happened.
It was as though an invisible wall had sprung up between her and the theater, and she was unable to take a single step closer. Her eyelids fluttered. Her bowels seized. People flowed around her, joined the sprawling entrance line; she was a rock in a river. She backed away, one small movement at a time, retreating into the shadows until the sign left her sight.
In the morning, she woke afraid of meeting that invisible wall again, of what might happen if she did, so she went to the Malecón at sunrise because her husband found meaning in things like sunrises and because the Malecón was where a climactic scene in Revolución Zombi had been filmed. Maybe seeing it would take an invisible brick out of that invisible wall.
She went down long, curving streets, under laundry slung over balconies, plastic bags clipped with pink pins to clotheslines. She passed a turquoise Belle Époque mansion, the sagging facade supported by once-magisterial green columns, the pillars now listing under the burden. She peered through a tall window expecting to glimpse ceiling or wallpaper; her eye instead met a patch of sky. The courtyard walls were crumbling. The grass had grown wild. A few blocks down, a pale yellow colonial with a white wrought-iron fence, the paint bright. The yard was a manicured stamp of green, framed by red gingers and birds of paradise. A blue-and-white placard with a symbol that looked like an upside-down anchor was posted above the doorway, indicating that the house was available for rent. At the bottom of the street, a graffitied figure in a black balaclava stretched across a weathered wall, with a signature that read 2 + 2 = 5.
She lost her way and ended up in a park, by a barren stone fountain sheltered by palm trees, the pointy fronds tilting in the breeze. She came upon an off-duty mime, his clothes and skin and hair all spray-painted gold, sitting on a bench and talking into a small white cell phone. The gilded mime nodded as she passed. The air was still tinged with night.
At the Malecón, the limestone seawall made the city look like a fortress: impenetrable, foreboding. She passed the occasional jogger and a hunched old man pushing a shopping cart filled with butterscotch candy and two younger men fishing beside a sign that read NO PESCAR. Ahead she couldn’t see anything beyond the flat gloss of the ocean, and the longer she stayed, the more it looked like the rising sun was setting the water on fire, and so she stood there, in a blaze fierce enough to remind any person that they were never not at the raw mercy of the earth, and waited to be burned up.
Back in the old part of the city, Clare found her husband standing, inexplicably, outside the Museum of the Revolution, a former presidential palace with immense white columns and a bronze tank stationed outside. The museum cast an enormous shadow and her husband was standing within that shadow. She recognized him first from behind, from several hundred feet away, and stopped in the middle of the sidewalk because she was dizzy and her mouth felt like it was packed with rocks. She ordered herself to stop recognizing him, since what she was recognizing was plainly impossible, but then she crept closer and saw just how possible it was. He was wearing a white linen suit she had never seen before, loafers with leather tassels. His neck was craned, a hand pressed to his brow, as though he were tracking something in the sky.
The contrails of an airplane. The flight of a cloud.
Outside the museum, she asked herself if she should hurl her arms around his shoulders and weep? Demand answers or not make any demands at all? Get in a taxi and ask for the nearest hospital? Should she call the police? Or should she simply back away as she had backed away from the theater, away from this gross violation of nature, this crime against the laws of physics, and forget that she ever saw such a thing in all her life?
The fact that the answer was not clear and primal spoke to all that had been left unfinished between them.
He abandoned the shadow and slipped inside the museum. She said nothing. She followed him, through the entrance and into an atrium, where he stopped by a large boat encased in glass. Nearby a guard in a dark green uniform stood tall. She could feel him watching, though of course there was no way for him to understand the sheer impossibility of what he was observing, that he was witness to a nightmare or a miracle, and the gap between her inner reality and the world around her felt so enormous she feared she was going to be swallowed up.
The gap between her inner reality and the world around her felt so enormous she feared she was going to be swallowed up.
Her husband stared at the boat with great attention and longing. She watched the fluttering eyelashes, the pulsing jawline, the slope of his cheekbones. His bottom lip twitched in a way that would have been imperceptible to anyone but his wife.
She was afraid that if she spoke, he would disappear.
Where could they even begin?
Do you still find meaning in sunrises?
When did you start finding meaning in boats?
Are we even really here?
Richard, she said, because that was his name, Richard, the same name that had belonged to his grandfather. He had never gone by a nickname. He hated it when people made the mistake of calling him Dick or Richie or Rich.
With her pinkie she brushed the linen edge of his coat sleeve. Richard, she said again.
He went up a winding marble staircase. She trailed behind, the heels of her sandals clacking. They circled the first of five floors, past a life-size display of two revolutionaries slinking through the woods. The wax figures were clothed in fatigues. Clare had trouble finding their mouths. The museum curled around a courtyard, where a brass band was settling into folding chairs, tuning their gleaming instruments. When she glimpsed Richard again he was on the other side of this courtyard, one floor higher than she, a blotch of white hovering in the embrace of a window and then darting along.
She tracked him to the top floor, to a ballroom filled with tourists unfurling maps and photographing the hulking crystal chandeliers, the gilded frescoes of angels. Her husband broke into a trot. A couple with Australian accents stepped into the path between them, hands laced, a barrier of flesh and breath. Clare jumped. Shoved her way forward. Launched his name into the crowd. Outside the band had sprung into song. She left the ballroom in time to see her husband racing down the marble stairs. She chased him into the courtyard, past the musicians exhaling into gold horns, and out the back exit, the tails of his jacket flapping.
From the steps, Clare watched her husband hop onto a motorbike and veer into the traffic on Avenida Bélgica, zooming past a small square and lumbering tour buses and children playing soccer on the sidewalk, into the bright heat of the day. In the square, a woman reading on a bench looked up from her book, momentarily startled by the story unfolding before her. Clare had never before seen her husband operate a motorbike, but he navigated it like he had been riding one all his life, like he had been riding one in Havana all his life, like he had not been struck by a car and killed in the United States of America some five weeks ago.
Laura van den Berg is the author of two story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, and the novel Find Me. She is the recipient of a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Bard Fiction Prize, an O. Henry Award, and a MacDowell Colony fellowship. Born and raised in Florida, she lives in Cambridge, MA, with her husband and dog.