I was curled up on the floor next to the bed. My body pretzeled into a mutated half-prone position as cold sweat altered the chemical relationship between my body and the thin layer of carpet. My parents were only three feet away, lying unconscious on the bed, but that fact only made the terror worse. Over the past two hours, the sounds had crept closer and closer like a pride of lions silently stalking in on a cornered, defenseless, hopeless kill. The sneaking was a facade at this point, and the only thing left was the inevitable. I had felt the tremors, the slams, and the explosions of banging noises for those past few hours I spent on the ground until finally my time was coming. Knock, bang, slam, roll, the noises continued as the amplitude grew until we finally met.
“KNOCK KNOCK!,” the door announced.
The time has come.
It was a brisk, typical night in Tel-Aviv.
Even as a 12 year old kid, I was already well familiar with that feeling of sleeping somewhere that is not your home; your bed. An innate sense activates when you close your eyes in a foreign bed alerting you that something is off. Things stick out when you’re spending a night in an unfamiliar place. In most hotels, it is the sounds more than anything. It’s amazing how much more powerful your ears get when you are trying to sleep in a hotel room. That distant hums of cars off the freeway oscillate like a balloon rapidly vomiting out all its air, then as the relative center point of the car passing, like a Balrog cursing as it falls to the depths of the planet.
“Thadunk! Thadunk!,” the sounds of car tires chuckle as they give rough patches of asphalt a thunk on the head.
“Click, clock, click, clock, click, clock,” recites the clock that you’d swear is behind a wall– because you don’t remember seeing an analog clock anywhere in your room.
And somewhere, you’d guess in the back of your head, is an unfamiliar hum, equally calming and unsettling. A sort of mixed chorus of pulsating frequencies that you’ve never heard in your life and never will again. Those room hums are the most unique sounds of all. Your mind expects the negative aural space of your bedroom, and it gets something alien in return.
Above you, in the rooms next to you, below you, the unintelligible chatter of near-fictional people and motions clamor about. Doors open and shut incessantly. The noises poke at you like little aural needles of sound waves, tirelessly probing and prodding as they stress out your eardrums. Sometimes you sleep a little, but usually you just have a single, long blink. At first, it’s dark, then just like that, it’s bright again, and you’re still tired, but glad that it’s over.
It was my last night of having to suffer the sounds; the feel of being away from home. A couple weeks ago I was sleeping in a Kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee, and from there spent my nights in various hotels and group lodging all over the map. It had been an enjoyable, memorable trip with my parents, but being two weeks in, the thought of being home again was the most warming idea I’d felt in my life.
I was really tired. I’ve never been the best at sleeping. I’m kind of like a big boulder. When I get going, sleep is an unstoppable force that would have me star in my own adaptation of Sleeping Beauty or maybe just Buster Bluth when he was pretending to be in a coma, but for the most part, it takes a lot of effort and the right atmosphere for sleep to take my captive. I was too anxious to do any real sleeping that night. We had to be up by around 6 to pack the rest of our stuff up and make our shuttle to the airport, which was expected to be an ordeal in its own right.
It didn’t help that sharing beds with my parents was a common theme that trip. I putzed around on my dad’s laptop for a while, reading about the latest in Asheron’s Call, the video game I had been hopelessly addicted to before we left the States, but I eventually dozed off for a few hours until something dragged my consciousness, kicking and screaming, out of sleep and back into reality.
Reluctantly, I woke back up, but tried to go back to sleep. It must have been around 3 in the morning at this point, and it was just me and the sounds again, except now my dad’s snoring had joined in on the fun. So I stared at the black of the ceiling and started to think about how nice it was going to be to be back home. I thought about how nice it was going to be to sit on my computer all day and play video games and eat something that wasn’t duck or pita bread; the only two things a finicky child like myself could stomach in a place like Israel.
Thinking was pleasant enough to me that night to allow me to start to fade out again, and I was drifting until my ears got pierced again.
“Thadum, thadum!,” the floors above guffawed.
The sounds of other travelers out and about, early and especially loud. There was an uprising in the unintelligible shouts and conversing going on throughout the halls of the hotel. Arabic, Hebrew, even my own English, they all sound the same when they’re muffled through walls and floors– especially at 3:30 in the morning. Then a hush overcame everything for a few minutes, and that pulled my alertness back into the picture.
That superhuman hearing that you get when you’re in an unfamiliar bed kicked into full power. The distant cars, the invisible clocks, the snoring, even the room hum all seemed to get muted, but the rest of the hotel was right next to my ear.
Thinking on it, I feel like I must be remembering something incorrectly because it seems so absurd, but in this hotel I remmeber it not being uncommon to leave your bags outside your door for the hotel staff to pick them up so that they could have them ready for your morning shuttle to the airport, but usually, they would just come by in the wee hours of the morning, knock on your door and you’d bring them out and they’d take them for you. Pretty sure that this is just one of those cases of childlike innocence making me misinterpret how the world works; something that never left me, even after childhood and I parted.
“Knock! Knock!,” was always met with a brief pause, then, “Skeerrrrooooooooooooo, thud, thud, roooooooo,” was the sound of the dolly with all the bags being rolled down the halls, peppering the ground with rough kisses as frequent carpet bumps were introduced to the rolling device.
A few floors above me the sounds continued.
A moment of silence.
“Skeeerrroooooo, thud, rooooo, thud thud, ooooooo”
A moment of silence.
For some reason this cycle of sounds fascinated me.
Sometimes you’d hear a bit of the muffled blabber as the bellhops volleyed barks at each other.
On and on it went, and my attention, seemingly out of my control, was completely siphoned by this process, anticipating the hotel workers finally getting down to our floor, our room, and finally starting my journey home. The anticipation continued to mount with each cycle of sound.
Still several floors above our room, it went on.
A moment of silence.
It repeated, and this time the pause was abnormally long.
I heard the subtle creek of the door opening this time, then my ears were interrupted by a distant, “BANG! BANG!”
Another long pause.
“Skeeeerrrrrooooooo, thud,” the wheels slurred as they spun.
“Knock! Knock!,” said the door.
“A moment of silence.” the silence insisted.
“Bang!,” shouted something terrible.
The bellhop chatter had picked up, too. My mind started to dance, and suddenly the chatter was beginning to sound less like unintelligible gibberish and more foreign. It seemed more direct. My mind and my heart conferred, and I noticed my pulse had accelerated to more of a jog instead of its previous tranquil walk.
I thought to myself:
Something doesn’t feel right all of a sudden.
We were not yet in the new millennium, and atrocities such a suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks were not as common nor sensationalized, or at least, they didn’t yet get the media coverage that they started to in the post-911 world. You still heard about them, especially in the Middle East, especially with tourists, and I had heard enough to have the whole concept conveniently planted in the back of my head the entire trip. Uniform wearing 19 year old boys and girls walking the streets with assault rifles farmed the notion.
Suddenly, I was mentally revisiting various images from the trip. I was back in the dining room of the hotel in Tel-Aviv, and I was inspecting every hotel staff member, and my imagination raced. In slow motion, I replayed snippets of dinner, snippets of walking through the lobby, snippets of passing them on the elevator, as my brain scrambled to put together this mental puzzle of images and flashes of memory.
Then, like that point in time when concrete passes from its liquidy, viscous state and officially, chemically becomes a solid, my Eureka moment arrived.
This hotel I was in was in the middle of a terrorist attack. Some of the hotel workers were actually terrorists. They probably killed the rest of the hotel staff, and now they were pretending to be bellhops picking up luggage. When you answered your door they executed you. One by one, door to door, thuds, bangs, knocks, and all.
With my imagination having made its final decision, it only took a few moments for the rest of my mental populace to corroborate and cast their vote in the decision.
It was unanimous.
A moment of silence.
“Bang! Bang!,” pause, “Bang!”
“Thud. Skeerrrooooo, thadum, thadum,” the sounds of the hotel continued. They were distant enough to still be far off, and perhaps somewhere in my imagination, but also had just enough sharpness in their power to materialize as real and terrible.
Like a crack in a sidewalk, Paralyzation spread out and infiltrated my body.
Is this really happening? Is this really happening on our last night? What am I going to do? What are we going to do? Should I wake up my parents yet? What if we just pretend to sleep and don’t answer the door. Maybe they will just go to the next door.
For some reason, when I perceive a distant threat, such as gunfire, my instinct is to get as low and close to the ground as possible. Slinking out of bed, I took a pillow and sheet and curled up next to the bed on the floor. I stayed there for minutes or hours or maybe it was a lifetime, it felt like all of those things baked together. Each moment equated to the terror becoming increasingly real, increasingly inevitable. Then it arrived.
I heard the elevator door unfurl and the squeaking, squabbling wheels started.
The sound was lateral now.
They were finally on our floor.
I had debated in my head what I was going to do for so long. I guess I was just hoping that they would get closer and it would become obvious that I was mistaken and had only been losing my mind. Anything to save myself the potential embarrassment of waking my parents to tell them that about how we were going to be executed, then end up not being executed. It never happened, though. It only sounded more horrifying as things closed in.
Mom or Dad.
Who was I going to wake up first? I knew if I went to my mother that she would instantly snap out of slumber, but she also would probably yell at me for being awake still and go right back to sleep. It was probably a scarier prospect than answering the impending door knocks.
Dad, dad, I should wake up dad. I started to conclude that, but that came with its own pitfalls. Could I even wake the man? I might need to borrow an AK from one of the fake bellhops outside and fire it off near his ear a few times to rattle him from his dreams, and even worse, knowing the old man, he’d probably just waltz on out to the hotel hallways in nothing but his underwear just because he thought I was crazy. If there really were terrorists about to gun us down, well that wouldn’t help my chances of survival, and if there weren’t, then he’d win the satisfaction of having embarrassed me once again, which doesn’t become an endearing trait of your father until you get older. These were high stakes I was dealing with.
Either way, it was clear. I was pretty sure I was the only competent mind in this intense situation of life or death crisis.
So I woke up my dad.
“Dad… dad. Hey, dad,” I whispered to him as I gave him a really tenuous nudge.
The human body is a musical instrument. I’m not just talking about the singing voice, but you can actually play the snoring human. Depending on where you nudge someone and with what intensity, you can seemingly control a snorer’s snoring patterns and pitches.
With this in mind, even as a 12 year old, I had woken up my dad enough times to play a pretty graceful snoring to consciousness tune.
“KKKKKRRTTHHRUH,” the consistent snoring hiccuped after the first nudge as I struggle to find ways to spell snoring sounds.
“Thud,” rolling resumed down the hallway as the walls felt like they were slowly closing in on me.
“Dad, hey, dad!”
I gave him a 2 nudge combo. The first to ease into the second that was more of a partially rolling you on your side nudge.
“KKKKTTHRRRRLUUUKTHH,” as the syncopation continued to develop and ease back into the calm rhythm.
Despite my expertise as a human snoring musician, I was not good enough of a performer to play the snoring man to wake without waking up the sleeping woman.
“James! What are you doing!,” my mom popped up, obscured by the dark as she scowled at me.
Once that happened, the entire house of cards began to fall as my dad slipped into the fold.
There I was, slithered up from the ground on the side of the bed as my mom and dad looked at me wondering what was wrong with their kid that they had to be interrupted from their sleep as if he were still some four year old baby. What I said to them next probably reaffirmed that notion.
“Mom, dad. Shhhhhh, do you hear that?”
“Knock, knock. Bang. Thud. Skerrooo“
I got no response, so I elevated my appeal.
“Don’t you get it! They’re not getting luggage, they’re killing people!”
It was obvious to me at least.
It’s the only response a person can have to such things.
I tried to explain the entire gamut to them. The fraudulent employees, the bellhop ruse, the thuds, bangs, and door answering executions.
“Mom, dad, it’s terrorists. I’ve been listening to the whole thing for two hours. Please, don’t answer the door when they knock. DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND ME! Listen!!”
When you’re trying to save people’s lives and your own, you don’t really want to be met with laughter, but I am pretty sure at least my mom was trying to hold back laughter as they witnessed what they likely thought to be a little twelve year old madman suffering from a special kind of depravity of sleep.
They weren’t getting it, and my stress levels crested and flooded over. Like an old toy, all my springs, cogs, and pieces came flying out of me in all different directions and I broke.
I think my dad tried to reassure me and calm me down as he told me his plan.
“When they knock, I am going to look through the peep hole before I open the door. Just stay here.”
It was not reassuring, but it was logical.
Then, so suddenly, the time had come.
“KNOCK! KNOCK!,” the door proclaimed.
I watched my dad, in nothing but his underwear of course, rise from the bed and stalk over to the door in the dark. As he approached, I collapsed back to the ground and rolled under the bed. As the terror within me came to a boil, I knew that hiding under a bed would do me no good, yet I still did it. For a moment, I ejected the two fools who were my caretakers from my mind, and hatched a hail mary plot to jump off the balcony if I had to.
I heard the door open, and all of the air rushed out of the room as a hush swept tense walls. Seconds stacked on top of another, then, finally, the door calmly shut.
And there I was, under the bed, in a cold sweat, moments removed from raving we were about to die to two very bewildered parents as we sent our luggage off to be taken to our shuttle in an hour. Just like that, my greatest fears had come true, I woke my parents up, I was wrong, and they thought I was crazy.
And as expected– Damn, that was embarrassing.
Addendum: I was pretty accurate about how weak a lot of my memory of this event was in my head. While I think I got a lot of my perspective and mindset down pretty close to how it was, some of my major details were off. This took place at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem per my dad correcting me. With that said, I won’t go back and fix it, it’s a memoir, after all.