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Your place away from it all

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Our hotel – our great hope for the future, our big shot at a life outside of cubicles and McJobs – was named the Cosy Cove Retreat.

Claire, Dag and I decided on our very first night south of the border that our hotel should have a name that was both ridiculous and vaguely creepy. We tossed around a lot of ideas, rifling through our brains for the kind of nutty whimsy that is easily produced by an upbringing from parents who think that Alice In Wonderland is acceptable reading material for a child. Most of those ideas are lost to the Patron sinkhole, but no matter, because Mr and Mrs A.T. Frank (mid-60s, latterly of Wyoming, but now failed hoteliers of San Felipe) provided us with the perfect hotel name.

When we bought their hotel, we just kept the name they'd chosen. Claire exclaimed happily that it was "perfectly abhorrent!" Dag remarked that it had "a ring of an endless woodland loop about it—"

("Imagine you're walking through a beautiful wood. It's so peaceful, light dappling around you through the canopy of cedar trees, that you walk for hours without noticing where you're going. It's late afternoon before you realize you're lost. Luckily, there's a signpost to guide you – just over there. Serendipity. The charmingly rustic little sign, a piece of wood carved into an arrow and carefully hammered into the ground, reads the Cosy Cove Retreat.

"Perfect. You can ask for directions, or even stay the night. You set off in the direction that the sign suggests, but an hour later, to your dismay, you're right back where you started. You can see that same sign, except now its twee qualities seem to taunt you. You set off once again, cursing under your breath and finding it hard to enjoy the dappled light, which is beginning to dim into twilight, anyway.

"Each time you head off in the direction the sign points, you end up right where you started. Finally, you collapse into a heap, exhausted and holding back tears. You know you're here for the night. It's cold and bleak and you remember some story a boy scout friend of yours once told you about bears in wooded areas.

"'The Cosy Cove Retreat.' As you sit shivering, you roll the words on your tongue obsessively. You'd like to lie in hotel sheets and exchange chit chat with the overfriendly owners who insist on calling you 'Bud'. You yearn for the Cosy Cove Retreat and, just as quickly, you begin to loathe it, sensing it must be a mirage, a trick sent to befuddle idle walkers.")

True to Dag's macabre story, the hotel did have a Norman Bates quality that we were loath to renovate away. However, there was some structural work to be done, and if the place needed to be torn apart, we figured we might as well redecorate as well. By this point, we were two months into our Big Adventure and we were beginning to feel like we'd taken a couple of loop-the-loops and the rollercoaster's rotting wooden struts were ready to give way, sending us plummeting to our deaths. Needless to say, our nerves were a little frayed. Also, I was beginning to feel that our 'brainstorming with alcohol' mode of making business decisions wasn't common practice for a reason.

"I think!" Claire said, punching out her exclamation point by pounding the tequila bottle against the table, "we should decorate each room as… as an homaaaage to our favourite artists. We could fill a room with sunflowers and another with melted clocks…" She beamed. "It would be." (Pause for effect.) "Lovely."

"I think!" said Dag, "we should decorate the rooms as an homage to our favourite artists' body parts. We could papier-mâché a giant bleeding ear for Van Gogh's room, and we could hang a moustache made of horse hair over the door in the Dalí room."

Dag grinned, sitting back and allowing his words to sink in.

"Everything's a joke to you, Dagmar," Claire said furiously.

"Au contraire, my lovely earlobe, I couldn't be more serious."

"Andy," Claire said, in the same tone of voice that a child bleats teacher!, "what do you think?"

Apart from the alcohol, the other problem with our brainstorming sessions was that I was always, always the tiebreaker.

Claire's idea was undoubtedly a winner and I should have said so, but at that moment I was slightly indisposed. Beneath the table, Dag's naked toes were nuzzling into the arch of my foot and I was finding it difficult to concentrate on decorating motifs.

Weakly, I said, "The bleeding ear might make a good talking point…"

I really couldn't begrudge Claire for storming off. Nor could I resent the dogs for taking her side and bounding off after her.

Once the three of them had gone, Dag stretched lavishly and cracked his neck. He was still wearing a self-satisfied grin, but his eyes flickered a little with remorse.

"You shouldn't bait her," I said, "her idea was pretty good."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Dag said lazily. "I was just playing. I blame the television down here. All the telenovelas make me feel that my life needs more drama."

I was silent for a moment and then said, "We should tell her."

"Well, I guess that would be dramatic." Dag eyeballed me and I could tell that, in his mind, he'd morphed fully into Mexican telenovela character with a chequered past and a flamboyant nature.

"We'll tell her tomorrow," I said.

"Next week's better for me…" Seeing my stony expression, he added, "I'm kidding. We'll tell her tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," I echoed and reached unconsciously for the tequila bottle.

Simple procrastination was the reason we hadn't told Claire about our fledgling relationship (or, to give it its proper term, "our fledgling, don't-wanna-jinx-it, can't commit, but still gotta hang onto this feeling with white knuckles …thing"). It was simple procrastination mixed with a sense that the friendship between the three of us might change. I was sure this was a subliminal message planted in my brain by a bad movie.

I was also still feeling a little bruised after coming out to my parents.

Picture the scene: Sunday morning phone call home; I was buzzed on caffeine and ready to blow my parents' minds.

"Mom… I have something to tell you." My voice had acquired a tremulousness that felt stolen from an after-school special.

"Oh honey, I have something to tell you… Tyler's gay."

Usurped. It turned out that Baby Brother had been sleeping with one of the Bills since Labor Day. Or possibly all three of the Bills. Mom wasn't clear.

"You know what comes before tomorrow, right?" Dag said, dragging me back into the present by literally yanking at my t-shirt. "Tonight."

After an hour of footsy beneath the table, the feel of skin-on-skin contact at points other than our toes seemed gloriously decadent. My lips were numb from the tequila, but Dag's mouth was warm and inviting as we kissed. I could feel the life return to my body, as if he were engaged in some sort of lifesaving mission. I couldn't remember jumping off the high diving board, but I was glad he was there to resuscitate me.

I calculated that Claire was pissed off enough that she wouldn't return for more than an hour, if at all. We had time. We had a whole Dalí-room-full-of-clocks' worth of time. Dag's fingers pushed my shirt upwards.

*

You'll have guessed already that we didn't tell Claire on that tomorrow or any of the 37 tomorrows that followed. My procrastination had reached a crisis point, where each day without Getting It Done loomed long. There was absolutely no sense in leaving it any longer, but my fears about what might happen when Claire found out had slowly multiplied. They could be broken down into three categories:

1) I was worried that Claire might morph spontaneously into an overenthusiastic fag hag, and she would poke and prod at our love life and remind us incessantly that marriage wasn't just for boys and girls.

2) I was worried that Claire might feel horribly left out, possibly as a result of some unrealized love for me.

("That is probably the most narcissistic thing you've ever said," Dag mused, when I shared my fears with him.

"Well, I'm sorry, I just—"

"No, it's good. I've been compiling a list of your bad qualities. Just in case we ever break up and I want to hate you. It was coming up short, so go right ahead. If you also wanted to share your latent Nazism with me, now would be an opportune time.")

3) I was worried that Claire might be completely unfazed by the whole thing, thus invalidating my sense that things were changing in An Important Way.

("So basically, no matter which way she reacts – happy, sad, indifferent – you've decided that doom will be involved," Dag concluded.)

*

Outside of my inner turmoil, things at the hotel continued apace. With the renovation and redecoration work underway, our thoughts turned to marketing.

"Dag, this is your area of specialty," said Claire breezily.

Dag glowered.

"Don't sulk, sweetheart."

"I hate marketing and all that it stands for," muttered Dag.

"I know, honey," Claire said, in her best babysitter voice. "Now close your eyes and breathe. You're free of the cubicle life and sitting on a beach in Mexico. Remember that. Okay? …Okay. Now tell me how to herd the clueless tourists in the direction of the CoCo Retreat, instead of the Shitbox Inn down the street."

"Think of it this way," I added. "You can take all those things you learned from the corporate machine and use them for good, instead of evil."

Dag snorted. "It's not like I'm Bruce Wayne. Anyway, all I ever learned about marketing is that people love pens."

"Pens?" Claire and I said in unison.

"Pens. You give 'em out free. In bright colors. With fake gold inlay. Your company name in tacky cursive font."

Claire and I looked at him dubiously.

"No matter what marketing strategy I ever suggested," said Dag obstinately, "the client would always pick pens instead."

A week later, we received a box filled with two thousand purple pens that bore the golden legend: The Cosy Cove Retreat – your place away from it all!

The tagline was Tobias's idea. We went along with it since he had begun to use words like "return on investment" and we wanted to appease him.

Once we'd burned through our own meagre savings, Tobias became the CoCo Retreat's major financier. It wasn't an ideal set-up, but he offered and we weren't in a position to say no. Claire was a little touchy about the subject at first, but gradually she came to the conclusion that using Tobias for his money, not just his looks, was an arrangement he would probably be fine with.

Knowing that Tobias would hate the charming, rundown hotel we'd chosen to buy, we'd trekked twenty miles west to a different town, where a soulless, glass-fronted hotel stood on the bay. The three of us posed in front of it, grinning and pointing, while a bemused tourist snapped our picture. We sent the photo to Tobias, who congratulated us on our savvy decision to purchase such a modern and appealing hotel.

*

We picked the date of the hotel's Grand Opening at random, by tossing a purple pen across the room at a calendar. After a brief squabble over which calendar square the pen's haphazard ink scratch most fully covered, we decided that April 16 was the fateful day. We worked toward the day doggedly, even though we didn't have a single reservation that we needed to honor. We shared a sense that, if we didn't open on April 16, we never would.

In fact, by the time the middle of April rolled around, we still had only three operational rooms. This meant that, after inviting dozens of people to attend the Grand Opening shindig, we had to tell our nonplussed friends and family they needed to find somewhere else to stay. My brother, Evan, "the normal one", called me, keen to brag that he'd snagged a great deal on a room at a sleek, beachfront hotel twenty miles away ("lots of steel and glass, very Architectural Digest"). He finally hung up in disgust at the hyena laughter that Claire and Dag provided as background noise.

On the morning of April 16, I woke up petrified. It wasn't the hotel itself that was the problem. (We'd done a decent enough job with it; as of the previous day, we even had both electricity and running water – previously, that had largely been an either/or situation.) It was the sudden influx of people that was worrying me.

My parents were coming. Evan was coming. Tyler and his boyfriend(s) were coming. Even Mr MacArthur was coming.

Naturally, Tobias was coming, which meant we'd probably have to come clean about exactly which property we'd used his money to buy. (I say probably because Dag suggested enacting some kind of tragic "accident", involving Bloody-Mary-in-the-eyes and temporary blindness, and none of us had entirely ruled it out.)

While Dag and I were eating breakfast, Claire bounded into the kitchen waving a postcard.

"Elvissa says she's coming!" she announced happily, allowing the postcard to flutter onto the table. Dag reached out to grab it, a little too hastily, and as he turned it over in his hands, I caught his wistful smile.

I pushed back my chair, stood up and walked away.

Reality was encroaching. My parents knew that I was gay in an abstract way, but this afternoon, they'd meet Dag (and, assuredly, they would hate him). I'd also set the Grand Opening party as my new, absolutely-no-later deadline for when to tell Claire about Dag and me. The presence of Tobias and Elvissa and all sorts of other ghosts from the past… it was all too much.

I knew what my relationship with Dag was when it was just the two of us, away from everyone else. We existed in our own personal, pre-apocalyptic bubble. But, I had begun to realize gradually, that a bubble can burst – raised eyebrows and pointed remarks had already punctured others of my dreams.

*

I lay in the Magritte room, beneath a cloud-scattered, summers-day sky that darkened to a stormy, midnight blue at the edges of the ceiling. The room, still unfinished, lacked even a bed. Stretched out on the floor, in the middle of a near-empty room, the level of minimalism felt almost Japanese – though the not-far-off arguments of Mexican tradesmen added a certain twist to the moment.

I heard approaching footsteps. I recognized Dag's quick, careless gait.

"There you are," he said, standing in the doorway, looking down at me. "Claire got a deal from the pens company. Three hundred orange balloons bearing our establishment's illustrious name, and – I quote – they won't blow themselves up."

"I'll be right there," I said listlessly.

"Funny, 'cause it looks like you're attempting to become one with the floorboards. Being right there usually involves greater kinesis."

In lieu of actual furniture, we'd arranged items from the Reckless Sleeper painting around the room. Idly, Dag picked up the bowler hat that hung from a hook on the door and put it on his head.

With great effort, I propped myself up into a sitting position. I stared at Dag, who at that moment looked even more like an interloper from a different decade.

"I don't want this to just be a thing," I said.

Dag looked confused.

"Us," I clarified, feeling my heart beat in my throat. "I want this to be. Something. Love." I whispered the last word, breaking it apart from the rest of the sentence.

"Well, good," Dag said, spinning the brim of his bowler hat, "because I love you."

*

Four hours and three hundred blown-up balloons later, our hotel was ready to be opened grandly. Dag and I spent the interim time exchanging approximately one thousand bashful, Disney smiles, used to reassure ourselves that this wasn't a dream/trick/hallucination and we really were in love.

When the shindig began, Claire, Dag and I decided to stand in a line in the hotel's foyer to greet our guests as they arrived. Claire pointed out that this made it seem like a funeral.

"Well, I'm certainly sorry for the loss of my sanity, my life savings and a decent amount of my dignity," I said, "so maybe it's fitting." Love had anaesthetized some of my worries, but I was still a human being and not a cartoon prince.

"Oh, God," exclaimed Claire, with her eyes fixed on the expanse of dirt outside the hotel that could generously be described as a driveway. "It's show time."

I followed Claire's gaze and watched as Tobias climbed out of an enormous black Sedan with tinted windows. It looked like the kind of car that I imagined Mexican mobsters used, which might have been Tobias's intent when he hired it. He helped a sleekly-dressed older woman out of the passenger side.

"Hello, Tobias! Hello, Elena!" Claire called out, her voice shrill.

"Is this some kind of joke?" Tobias returned, forgoing pleasantries. "You sank my money into this? It looks like a murder motel."

"Thanks!" Dag exclaimed, looking pleased at the descriptor.

Elena, who seemed exceedingly bored by everything, including Tobias's anger, scraped her nails down her son's arm and said, "Darling, I'm going to find a rest room. I assume this establishment has running water at least."

"As of yesterday, it does!" Claire said, still a touch manic. "I'll show you to the bathroom!"

Elena cast a cold look in her direction. "No need," she said and wandered off.

"Will she just intuit its whereabouts?" Dag wondered aloud, looking visibly impressed.

Claire, who was still watching Elena disappear down a corridor, muttered, "I can't believe you brought your mother. You might have warned me."

"And you might have warned me I bought a stake in a place no one in their right mind would pay money to stay in," retorted Tobias.

"Actually, we got our first booking this morning," said Dag mildly. "I didn't ask if they're in their right minds. But maybe we'll corner the insane travel market."

"We got our first booking?" I asked.

"You didn't tell me!" said Claire, punching him on the arm.

"It slipped my mind," Dag said with a smile.

"We got our first booking," I repeated.

"Our first booking!" exclaimed Claire.

For a moment, the rest of the world receded and it was just the three of us, bathed in the warmth of our success. We grinned at each other. Claire was so happy that she even hopped on one leg, a wonderfully undignified lapse on her part. We'd done it: we had opened a hotel and found someone willing to pay money to stay there.

"I don't mean to interrupt," Tobias said icily, "but please can someone tell me how I ended up as the major shareholder in this craphole? What about the other place? The picture you sent me?"

"Oh, darling, that place was an office building masquerading as a getaway spot," said Elena, materializing beside Tobias. "But this," she continued, "this is quite interesting." She pronounced each of the word's four syllables.

"Mother, you can't possibly—"

"Tobias, if you knew anything about business, you'd realize that there's money to be made in catering to eccentricity. Fortunes are built upon exploiting society's desire to feel that they are different, unique, not tied down by normalcy."

"That's possibly the most depressing thing I've ever heard," said Dag, still looking impressed by Elena.

"Thank you, my dear," said Elena, flashing Dag a smile that might almost have been flirtatious.

*

"I think Elena wants me to be her live-in toy boy," Dag remarked later. "What a job. I'm tempted. I'd get to live rent-free in her Upper East Side apartment."

"Sorry," I said, "you already have a job. And a home."

"And you," he said, grinning.

"Yeah, and me… oh no, shit."

"What, the love affair has gone cold already?"

"No, but we really, really, really need to tell Claire," I said, grimacing.

"Oh yeah," said Dag. "I told her. A couple weeks ago." Seeing my jaw drop, he added, "You seemed stressed about it, so."

"She knows?"

Dag shrugged. "She knows."

We both looked across the room at Claire, who smiled and waved at us. She stood talking to Elvissa and one of her nun friends, who might, possibly, have been a nun girlfriend. I wanted to check Dag's face for surreptitious signs that he was jealous and wanted Elvissa for himself, but he distracted me with a kiss.

*

I guess sometimes things just change. They don't implode, they just change. Oh, maybe one world ends, but maybe you'll like the new world better. That's something I learned at the Cosy Cove Retreat. Maybe you've heard of it. They do a pretty good deal for a three-night stay and, get this, there's a huge, bleeding papier-mâché ear inside one room.