Scent of a cigarette permeates her memory of a trip south

Janet's world

janet's world

March 01, 2009|By Janet Gilbert | Janet Gilbert,Special to The Baltimore Sun

In Virginia, you can still get a smoking room at a hotel.

I just thought I'd mention that, in case any of you are thinking: "Hey, I'd really like to get away and stay someplace that guarantees I'll have severe nasal drip and sinus congestion for several days after my trip."

I guess I am used to Maryland, where we really don't allow anyone to smoke anywhere anymore. So I was genuinely surprised when I called a hotel in Virginia Beach and the reservations agent asked whether I wanted a smoking or nonsmoking room. When I requested nonsmoking, she told me there was none available, which made me wonder why she had asked in the first place. Because I was traveling on business and short notice, I booked the smoking room.

I thought to myself, really, how smoky can it be? And I would only be staying one night.

But then I had a moment of clarity, brought on by the memory of a time when my husband and I lent our first apartment to his former college professor, a pipe smoker. When we returned from our vacation, the professor had left, after having completed a series of job interviews. But his presence stayed with us, in the form of a cloying tobacco odor that permeated our pillows and clothes and furniture for a good six months.

I asked the reservations agent if she could please note on my reservation that I would prefer a nonsmoking room, in case one became available in the meantime. I assumed this was useless - sort of like checking the box "I like quiet when I study" on a college housing form. Nonetheless, it made me feel better.

And so, off I drove to Virginia Beach for an overnight business trip. As I arrived at my hotel, I glanced briefly at the marquee, which was advertising some sort of exciting event. There were many dates listed - including that evening's - and accompanying exclamation marks. I was curious. I had reluctantly given up my ticket to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt speak in Maryland because of this business trip. Now, I thought, perhaps some other great author is speaking here tonight in Virginia Beach! Wouldn't that just be karma?

After I parked, I walked around to the front door to get a good look at the marquee.

It read: Female Grappling.

I really couldn't make this stuff up.

I slung my overnight bag over my shoulder and walked inside to the check-in counter. There was a line of athletic-looking, heavily made up women in front of me. I was careful not to bump into any of them so as not to incite a spontaneous takedown of my person. Additionally, I was mindful to project a submissive posture, should I find myself abruptly thrust into the company of frightening fictitious women such as Cruella De Vil, Dolores Umbridge and the Glenn Close character from Fatal Attraction. Finally, I reminded myself not to dare punch the little bell on the counter for service, because it could potentially set these grapplers off.

When I finally arrived at the front desk, the clerk told me that a nonsmoking room had become available. By this time, I was so unnerved by the banter of the hard-looking women around me, I was thinking of taking up smoking for the night. But I came to my senses and gratefully accepted the nonsmoking option and headed upstairs to my room.

On opening the door, I was instantly greeted with an essence of Merit Lights. Because nonsmoking rooms in hotels with smoking rooms are basically just half the tar, half the nicotine.

You might think the whole experience was kind of a drag, but I felt a weird connection to Frank McCourt as I slept that night, dreaming of Angela's Ashes.

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