When I travel alone, when my only companion and source of affection is the hypoallergenic wedge of pillow with some silly hotel monogram on it, when the jet lag and the unfamiliar sun make me feel like a dust speck blown across the earth (an alien dust speck that will never know the love of another human being again), when all these planets align, one thing will happen: someone in the room next to me will be having very loud sex. Not just loud sex, but the most emotive, bizarre, animalistic, post-structuralist, post-human sex ever. The men will moan as if the hotel staff is extracting state secrets out of them, the women will reach a crescendo of foreign syllables that always sounds to my ears like “You’re so alone, you’re so alone, you’re so ahhhhhh-lone!”
And I am alone. At three in the morning, in a distant land, unsure of who I am, my iPhone set to the wrong time zone, my passport forgotten at reception, my wallet out of Albanian leks, my bed floating through nothingness like a spacecraft that’s slipped out of Earth’s orbit and beyond Houston’s range, as above me, below me, beside me, two people join up in outrageous, pornographic ecstasy, some of them clearly trying to create a third person by the early morning’s light.
Different hotel chains seem to elicit different kinds of sex. W Hotels, contrary to the boutique leanings of many of its properties, seem to get going early, say 10 p.m., and some of the sex sounds vaguely romantic, with occasional kind laughter and even a precoital Italian “Ti amo! ” The international range of the Marriott brand is unmistakable and admirable: if you want to hear sex in Tagalog in Manila, this is probably your best bet. Hands down, the lustiest hotel chain in the world in my experience is Hyatt. I don’t know if every encounter is registered in its loyalty rewards program, but Hyatt may be one reason why the world’s population is topping 7 billion. When I had to place Misha Vainberg, the amorous hero of my second novel, Absurdistan, inside a Western brand-name hotel, I really didn’t have to think twice.
Of course, where you are makes a difference. At a too-cool-for-school hotel on the outskirts of Bangkok, the Japanese couple next door went at it so vocally, I was absolutely sure the woman had just recited the entire Tale of Genji. Even the deeply cynical Thai water bug staring at me pensively from the ceiling seemed to stop in its tracks, utterly shocked. The next morning Mr. and Mrs. Osaka were at the pool next to me nibbling on spicy scrambled eggs. Inevitably during “the morning after” the young man will be staring ahead in his most cool and sullen pose, or heartlessly flipping through his cell phone, while the young woman hums with purpose and fulfillment. This discrepancy is yet another reason to worry for our species.
(Important note: if you have recently broken up with someone and are feeling particularly blue, do not stay in a hotel in Naples, Italy, or anywhere south of Naples.)
Often I feel the people next to me are having sex with the express purpose of showing off. At a luxurious hotel in my native St. Petersburg, Russia, I was placed in a duplex suite, the kind where the second-floor mansard bedroom is just centimeters away from another person’s lovemaking. By their outrageous “okhs” and “ooohs” I had immediately pegged the next-door couple as rich Muscovites come to the relatively impoverished Venice of the North to show off their advanced earning power and perfectly calibrated reproductive skills. The next morning at the hearty breakfast table, they were cinematically feeding each other sturgeon and kielbasa, cooing and mooing, laughing and loving, reminding me that the only thing sadder than a lonely traveler with sex all around him is a lonely traveler staring at a plate of cold kasha.
Sometimes, the sex itself is sad. At an airport hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, the young farmers of America next door were so desperately trying to fall into a rhythm, to find a language that could accommodate that other, uncertain side of them, I almost called room service to send them up an oyster. Their meaningless call-and-response led me to open my window so that I could better hear the drone of an early morning flight taking off for a better-sexed destination. Minneapolis, say.
Needless to say that when I travel with my partner, there is complete silence in the rooms next to us. When I’m asleep in her arms, the universe has no reason to taunt me. Enjoy the silence, it says to me. Someone loves you. Now love her back.
T+L contributing editor Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan, among other books. His latest, Little Failure: A Memoir (Random House), is out now.