In a Room

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Cheekbones, diesel, rough sheets, unsteadiness, La-Z-Boys, shattered glass, bourbon, dirty snow, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, postcards, Hollywood romance, prisons & north-central Ohio.


It had been six months since we’d last seen one another. He’d traveled across oceans and continents without warning back in June, and contact had been disappointingly infrequent. But by December he was Stateside again, now settled in Cleveland. I was visiting family in Columbus; it was understood that we’d meet as quickly as possible. We just needed a rendezvous point, a halfway. My eyes moved across the map. Ashland. Maybe Burbank—a tribute; we’d first met in Los Angeles—or Congress, to say we had. I measured. “Mansfield,” I wrote. He’d thought so too. “I’ll reserve a hotel and send you the address. Capisce?”

This man had been a gust of sharp wind—swirling around, over and through me, penetrating to the marrow, leaving me gait-changed, goose-bumped, tangled. For a while there had been frenzy. When we were together, our words wound around one another like a caduceus. Our encounters were unmoored. Christ, they were unholy, even—genomic, his word. I could never get enough to last until the next time.

When he’d hopped a plane in early summer, it was supposed to be for a week. He was headed to his brother’s wedding back East—Providence, I think it was. I knew somehow when he stepped off my porch that I wouldn’t see him for a long time. I folded bare arms across my chest and watched him walk away.

Compass Rose

Once, after our second or third time together, I’d laughed at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. A thick smear of mascara circled my eyes. He came in to investigate, still flushed and dizzy after sex.

“…but what if I like it?” he asked.

He leaned in, tipped my face toward his with both hands, and ran his tongue in a gentle line from cheekbone to brow.

Compass Rose

W       eeks passed and I hoped I could molt, let time whitewash me so I didn’t feel so bolted to him. But the heart doesn’t care about chronology. His near-silence was an unceremonious end to things, yet every time he volleyed a text, I went full teenager and lost my resolve to move on. What did the letting-go matter, I thought, now that we were going to be thrown at each other in a place neither of us had ever heard of?

I arrived first. It was about 9 p.m. on a Monday between Christmas and New Year’s. Downtown Mansfield was empty. Families had long finished dinner; the flicker of televisions synced with tree lights behind curtains. I circled back to the motor lodge on the southern edge of town. Across the way was a row of fast-food joints, cheap lodging and a Walmart. Dormant farmland sullied by dingy snow lined the highway. It was too cold to smell anything but diesel exhaust.


This man had been a gust of sharp wind—swirling around, over and through me, penetrating to the marrow, leaving me gait-changed, goose-bumped, tangled.


I drew the blackout curtains against the streetlights. Unpacked and sitting on the worn bed, I peeled the wax off a small bottle of Maker’s Mark and sipped it from a Styrofoam cup. I was on my own tonight. He’d arrive the next morning. Eighty-nine bucks seemed like a fair price. I got the late-late checkout.

I’ve been in plenty of beige budget rooms like #114, and I fell into a familiar routine: Turn the local news on. Unwrap a sliver of white soap in the bathroom. Lay out an over-starched towel by the bathtub. Finally I got into bed and kicked the sheets out of their hospital corners. Then I texted him and waited for what felt like a long time.

At 10:27 p.m., he wrote, “mm ill let you know when im close.”

Compass Rose

Sleep came slowly. I dreamed of dashed plans and woke at six. I wasn’t hungry, but I tried a stale buffet croissant that hinted of plastic wrap. Most of it ended up in the trash. This smallish town felt vast now with the waiting. Outside with weak coffee, I lit a cigarette and scanned the commercial-industrial cluster down the hill. Tractor trailers beat a rhythm on the interchange. Retirees pulled into Bob Evans for five-dollar biscuits and gravy. Commuters refueled at the BP and wiped exploded insects from their windshields. Bleak and transitory, the outskirts of Mansfield went about their anonymous and repetitive business.

It was hell waiting for him to pull up. The threadbare room was too small now, too hot. Apart from the Adultmart across the street on Interstate Circle and the Mexican cantina that shared the motel parking lot, there wasn’t much to this outpost. It was a placeholder. When I heard two knocks and unlatched the deadbolt, though, Mansfield started to feel right-sized and well-placed.


It’s a town built two hundred years ago on railroads and industry, and the abandoned forges and brick warehouses gape with broken panes. The gates came down on Fifth Street for a freight train, and I lowered the windows just to hear the whistle and chug.


There wasn’t enough air in the room for either of us to speak, so we clutched and stared and traced until we kissed. The dusty spray of fake flowers beside the bureau mirror, the framed prints of ugly landscapes, the Leatherette ice bucket, the surprising La-Z-Boy were just right. We were in Mansfield, where we belonged.

The time together felt big, though there was much less of it than I’d wanted. Noon passed. The housekeeping cart rattled down the corridor. Incandescent bulbs glowed. The loam-colored coverlet slipped from the mattress. He dressed, then cracked the door open and left. The matter was settled. I waited until I couldn’t hear his car anymore and stepped outside. Cold gray Ohio sunshine touched nondescript buildings, and hard gray asphalt froze my bare toes. Yes, I was in Mansfield, and no, you can’t trust a map, now, can you?

Compass Rose

Our arrangement was over; that was clear. But the trip wasn’t. I wasn’t done with it yet. Mansfield is a crumbling blip, a place I’d never visit again unless I ran out of gas. But there was a kind of holiness to it now, despite its shabbiness. Charm. Any town can be sacred.

I wanted a souvenir; I couldn’t risk forgetting. If outsiders know of Mansfield, it’s likely for one of two landmarks: the Ohio State Reformatory, because The Shawshank Redemption was filmed there, or Malabar Farm, now a state park, because that’s where Bogie married Bacall one spring day in 1945. By now the town has settled back into its old ragged habits. I tried the prison even though I knew it was closed for the season.


There wasn’t enough air in the room for either of us to speak, so we clutched and stared and traced until we kissed. The dusty spray of fake flowers beside the bureau mirror, the framed prints of ugly landscapes, the Leatherette ice bucket, the surprising La-Z-Boy were just right.


I steered the rental south to downtown and through its narrow streets, looking for a gift shop or at least a place where I could get a decent coffee. I drove down Main Street, up Diamond, across Temple Court and Park Avenue. I passed City News (which doubles as Suzy’s Smoke Room), the Little Buckeye Children’s Museum, the Fraternal Order of Eagles. There’s a sense of struggle against disrepair in Mansfield. Ohio winters are brutal. The frigid wind and sleet strip sidewalks of people and trees of leaves; folks brace every man-made thing along the road. It’s a town built two hundred years ago on railroads and industry, and the abandoned forges and brick warehouses gape with broken panes. The gates came down on Fifth Street for a freight train, and I lowered the windows just to hear the whistle and chug.

I found what I needed, eventually. There was a postcard for sale at the wooden carousel in the middle of downtown, a simple black-and-white line drawing of the Reformatory. I knew as the register rang that I’d labor over the message, be careful with my handwriting, but that it’d stay stamped and undelivered. He is built to drift, fireproofed against attachment. His name is a place and his address is constantly changing, unannounced, as are all these shape-shifting places on my cartographic heart.


Kim Stravers has spent much of her life immersed in adventure sports, writing and editing for outlets such as ESPN, Surfer, Bike, META and (perhaps less surprisingly than you’d think) The Golfer’s Journal, but was most recently published by The Guardian. In past lives, she’s managed a beer and blues festival, co-founded a nonprofit, covered Olympic snowboarding and successfully wrangled a couple of political campaigns in a tiny mountain town. She is the managing editor of Nowhere.

Lead image: Jon Jordan

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3 Comments

  1. The best story I have read on NOWHERE.

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