Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Third Hotel

A Novel

Laura van den Berg



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.

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.

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.

Copyright © 2018 by Laura van den Berg