Hotels cater to business travelers, and both parties engage in an interesting pretense. Every traveler buys into the myth that they are the first person to ever stay in that room. Housekeeping makes heroic efforts to create a landscape of cleanliness, efficiency, and satisfaction when you step through the door of your hotel room.
The bed is tucked tight enough so you struggle to fold open the sheet and blanket. The sinks and shower are dry, towels precisely folded, amenities lined up as if Mr. Carson, the head butler from Downton Abbey, had arranged them. The lighting is vague, the better to continue the illusion.
Even if the carpet is clean, even if the TV remote isn’t smudgy, the room illusion doesn’t always remain intact. Hallway noises, next door room noises are reminders that I am in the business equivalent of a dorm room, with strangers all around, separated by thin walls and connecting doors with a thumb lock.
The illusion became complicated several years ago. I travel a lot, and I dream the lives of the people who were in the room before me. In my regular dreams, I encounter people I know or remember, but in hotel dreams, everyone in my dream is a stranger. The blond who got a business dress stuck on her shower-damp body and tore a seam. The man who was meeting his lover who was breaking up with him. The maid who finds a necklace and struggles to know the right thing to do. The inexperienced business traveler who is scared about the presentation she isn’t sure about. Rarely are the dreams peaceful. There is a lot of underground stress in those beds. A lot of unresolved guilt, fear, and confusion. I dream them all. I don’t get a lot of rest in hotels.
Of course this sounds strange, and for years, I simply believed that I had strange dreams when I traveled. It’s not rational to think I dream the lives of other people. Exactly what I used to think. Here’s how I found out.
Several years ago, I flew to the Pacific Northwest for an art retreat. Excited to meet other people who kept art journals, I was eager to learn new techniques and see fresh ways to work. We stayed in dorm rooms, and my dreams were of young men, angry, scared, and often violent. The area had been used as a training center in World War I, but the dreams seemed less military, more chaotic. After the dreams became violent and I couldn’t sleep, I moved to a hotel in a nearby town. The violent dreams stopped, replaced by dreams of people who came to fish, or tour, or be with families in difficult times.
Back home, the strangeness of the dreams made me curious. Digging into the history of the location, I discovered that what was now a lovely retreat site had been a juvenile diagnostic and treatment center for almost 15 years. One story described incidents of sexual predation, another used the term “criminally insane.” That explained the chaos and violence, and when I returned for another retreat, I booked a room in town.
The dreams are not stories I can write down and turn into novels. They are fragments and scenes, not plots for romance or mystery stories. Those stories don’t belong to me, they simply move through me. And I’m grateful when I wake up and live my own life. Those dreams also make returning home a celebration, so I can puzzle out dreams that make some sense to me.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer, a writing trainer, and a creativity coach who helps people through difficult times in their lives through writing exercises.