TOOK THE DAY OFF WORK TO WRITE. HAD NO NOTES, NO IDEAS, NO CHARACTERS WHISPERING IN MY EAR ABOUT HOW MUCH THEY NEEDED TO GET OUT OF MY HEAD AND ONTO THE PAGE. STARTED WITH ZERO AND HERE'S WHAT CAME OUT:
You tell yourself that you’re just taking a drive to clear your head. You hit the highway, your clunky, primered, garage-project Ford Fairlane responding surprisingly well to 75 miles per hour. So well, in fact, that as the towns and streets listed on the exit signs get less and less familiar, you don’t turn around and head home. You simply keep going.
And going still.
Until it hits you like a bucket of not-so-cold water – you’re not going home. Ever.
What did you leave behind though, seriously? The job? Come on. Be honest. You were beyond burnout and they treated you like shit. The marriage? Can you even call it that anymore? The kid? Christ, don’t even think about the kid. Haven’t even visited him in God knows how – No! Don’t think about him. The only thing of worth in that overpriced shit box of an apartment was maybe your old Golden Gloves trophies, at this point more for their antique value than sentimental. You did leave the black bomber jacket that Pop bought you on that road trip when he took you off to college. Shit. You really liked that jacket.
And drive. Lost in the ricochets, the shoulda, woulda, couldas that have been eating at you for days, months, years. Lost. Yep. That’s the word.
Lost… and now you’re sitting in the half-empty parking lot of a Motel 6, hundreds of miles from your, albeit fractured, life, counting the crumpled cash in your wallet to see if you can afford a room for the night? Why are you counting off dirty fives and tens with shaking hands, eyeing the gas gauge, doing the math in your head on how far you can get on what you’ve got – fuel, food, finances - thinking about maybe just tilting the seat back, getting a few hours of aching-back shuteye, and saving the cash for… for what?
Are you already pussing out? Will you just stay the night, feel better in the morning and drive back home, try to pick up the pieces and fit them back best you can? Maybe. After all, people’s lives aren’t perfect. Doesn’t matter who you are, there’s no such thing as easy - this much you’ve managed to learn in your 37 years. Why should your life be any more manageable than the next guy’s? Let’s face it, you’ve made your share of mistakes, pal. Everybody’s entitled to them. But maybe it’s that feeling you’ve made well more than your share at this point. Hit the wall, as they say. Achieved Critical Mass. Meltdown. China Syndrome.
Or is this fugue state simply masking something else? A craving? For the unknown. For Point A without a Point B on the visible horizon. For an honest-to-God-I-swear-I’ll-get-it-right-this-time Fresh Start.
You don’t know. You’re not that deep. Adventure’s never really been your thing. You’ve never been the type to Burn, Baby, Burn. You like your eight hours sleep and overpriced coffeehouse mocha chino with banana muffin for breakfast on the way to your eight-to-six, back home in time to do work in front of the news, conveniently forgetting about dinner so you don’t have to be reminded that you eat alone these days.
But maybe that’s why this is happening. Maybe you really didn’t like it at all. Maybe this is the real you.
Or are you even in control right now? Are you just watching from deep inside a guy who looks a lot like you, like when you’re on a six-beers-in cheap drunk, witnessing yourself taking a piss in the restroom of the fucking Chili’s across the street from work, floating to and looking in the mirror as you wash up, smiling at how you somehow deftly managed not to get any on your khakis, not realizing you forgot to zip up, having a laugh about it with the boys when you get back to the bar?
Speaking of “six-beers-in”… There’s a bar next to this place. You’ve got $94. What the hell? Get a room. Live dangerously.
Told you you weren’t that deep.
But you’re not going home. Ever.
Groggy. Mouth swollen and sticky, hurts… Eyes hurt, too. Back aches like a bastard… Did you sleep in the car after all? No. Sunlight cuts in across your face from the two-inches-too-short blackout curtains of the motel room. The air conditioner sounds like a jet engine. Not good for the headache. You roll over, crawl to it, turn it off. Damn, your mouth really hurts.
You kneel on the hard carpeting, stand up, use the TV for leverage. Channel six’s been on all night with the sound low. Weird. That would usually wake you up. Some infomercial on now. A surefire way to make money in real estate foreclosures. In spite of your present condition, you manage to chuckle a bit. You chuckle a bit because you actually called the number “at the bottom of your screen” in a moment of weakness late one night, about a year ago, after Cathy complained to you about the lack of zeros in your joint bank account. You got the booklets and CDs sent to you Rush Delivery. Didn’t even get halfway through them. Crock of shit.
You amble over to the bathroom sink, flick the light on. Hardcore blinking fluorescents attack like paparazzi flashbulbs. You hold yourself steady, eyes adjusting, turn on the cold water in the sink. As usual, the motel light fixtures ain’t the most flattering. You can feel every crater and blemish on your face suddenly amplified by the exposed nuclear-white tube. You wonder why the people who design these rooms haven’t made this easy fix, kept the lights subtler. Idea being, if the lights make you look good, it might make you want to stay longer. Probably not. Motels. They got more of a “get ‘em in, get ‘em out” policy going. Whatever. Shut up. You’re hung over. Not exactly the time for groundbreaking ideas. But your mouth fucking hurts! Your eyes finally come into focus and you notice something. Something new.
You don’t remember getting in a fistfight, but there’s a black eye and near-black dried blood on your mouth to heavily suggest you did. You lean in to your reflection, the new you – or is it the real you? You open your mouth, inspecting the source of the pain. A dangler. Tooth Fairy could have got one for free if she’d been willing to give it one last tug. You do the honors.
“Aw, shawt! Thon of a bith!”
You spit Alabama Crimson Tide into the sink, pull out your Cracker Jack prize, a lone dark blue root dangling. Nice. Real nice.
You drop the bloody tooth on the rug.
A woozy female voice. Not Cathy. You look at the reflection of the bed. The twisted mass of bed linens moves slowly, a shadowy leg stretching out. You turn quickly, fingers shoved in direct pressure on where your bottom left incisor used to be. Her slender arm whips the sheets down, exposing a perfect full-moon. She’s naked. You look down. You’re naked.
You should’ve gone home. You asshole.
“That’s one helluva shiner you got there. My hero.” She’s got a sense of humor. That’s good. Maybe she’ll laugh when you tell her you’re married. Probably not.
She sits up, rubbing at stiff shoulders. Still can’t quite see all of her; silhouette’s nice though. You can make out a blood-red star tattoo on her inner forearm as she leans out, grabs a cigarette from the nightstand, lights up. Good curves, looks like pageboy-punk black hair. She must see the genuine look of frozen shock on your face.
“Hi.” A nonchalant smile. A resigned clearing of the throat.
“Huy.” You take the finger out of your mouth, taste copper again, turn to spit more blood into the sink. You turn back, almost like pinching yourself to make sure it’s not a dream. It’s not.
She stands in the filtering dusty morning light, takes a drag, the orange from the tip of the smoke shows you runny mascara, dark eyes. Kinda tall, maybe five-nine. She pulls on a pair of jeans - sans undies, shrugs and adjusts her maybe-fake-maybe-not-wish-I-could-remember-better breasts back into a white tank top, and grabs a dikey black bomber jacket (Hey!) off the end of the bed.
“Try balling up a tissue, shove it in the hole. It’ll stop what’s left of the bleeding at least. Probably too late for an ice pack now.”
You stand there, dumbfounded. What do you say? Your limp dick’s still blowing in the wind and your smile ain’t what it used to be. Not a good look for you. For anybody, really.
She digs under the sheets, finds a pair of green lace panties, slingshots them at you. Your first ever one-handed catch of anything.
Blasé: “Something to remember me by. Seeya.”
She’s out the door before you can even ask her… anything. Your clothes are… Shit, where are your clothes? You can’t exactly run after her and tell her to stay for a little Q and A.
Christ, your mouth hurts!
Okay, so maybe you should’ve gone home. Maybe. You’re still an asshole.
You take your time getting cleaned up. The shower’s nice and hot, feels good on the new bumps and bruises you keep discovering. Somebody really worked you over. Be nice to know who. And why. Then again, maybe not. Ignorance is bliss.
You finally find your clothes balled up under the bed, try to scrub out the dried blood on the collar of your blue Oxford. It only sort of works. Despite Mystery Lady’s advice, you walk out to the ice machine and fill up the little bucket from your room. You pause for a moment, looking around at the lot. The din of mid-morning highway traffic dominates a pretty barren landscape. It’s a whistle stop kind of a town. If you can even call it a town. Looks like only one street, really.
At the other end of the motel, a family of four piles into a station wagon, the father double-checking the bungees on the luggage rack. He notices you, gives you a good morning wave along with that reticent smile that only fathers of whining complaining kids can give. He climbs into the car, immediately turning the complaints to celebration with the words “Waffle House,” puts the wagon in gear and drives off with another wave in your direction. You don’t wave back.
Back in the room, you dump a handful of cubes into the last of the off-white (read: eternally cum-stained) hand towels. It stings a bit, but you’re trading one pain for another. She was probably right. It’s swollen all it’s going to. The hole in your jaw feels like it’s stopped bleeding. You gingerly remove the wadded up tissue, toss it in the ridiculously tiny motel garbage can below the sink. This is the best you’re going to feel for now. Better to just get on with your day.
You scour your pockets for leftover cash. Some coins, but that’s it. Nice to know you paid full price to feel like shit. At least you’ve no luggage, so not even a need for “one last look” around the motel room. You leave the keycard on top of the television.
Weak Irony: “Thanks for the memories.”
You shut the door, hoping there’s still tea left at the Complimentary Continental Breakfast table in the motel office. Probably not.
“Are you alright, sir?”
The desk clerk looks 30% concerned for your health, 70% worried that you’ll go nutcase on him and pull a gun. You take a moment to read the sign on the desk: Register Contains Less Than $100. He sees you reading and flinches. You can’t help but crack a cheap smirk. You pay for it in sudden white-hot jaw pain. You flinch more.
As you suspected, there is no tea at the Complimentary Continental Breakfast table. Just a few left over mini-boxes of Raisin Bran and Corn Flakes and near-drained coffee canisters. You think to yourself, just what exactly is “complimentary” about this breakfast selection? The table’s basically saying, ‘Look, you couldn’t be bothered to get your ass out of bed and out of our motel before 7 a.m., so now we’re telling you – Fucking Check Out and Go Eat Somewhere Else!’
You take the hint. The hollow sound of the tiny bell above the door bids you adieu as you step out into Point A.
A for Asshole.
Anybody with half a brain in their head would realize the immensely self-indulgent mistake you made putting the pedal to the metal last night while you were lost in a funk of woe-is-me bullshit, count their blessings and take their bruises and body aches – not to mention what’s bound to be one hell of a dentist’s bill, get in their fucking car, and...
with their goddamn tale between their legs, having understood the lesson that Life has just taught them. And you are seriously considering this magnificent option with your apparently-less-than-half a brain.
Then you see her. She’s unlocking the Greasy Spoon restaurant across the street, still in her dikey black bomber jacket over the tank top.
You look at the Ford. You look across the street as she locks the glass door behind her, not even noticing you.
What can you say? You really liked that jacket.
A knock-knock on cold streaky glass.
“We don’t open ‘til ten!” You can hear her but you can’t see her. You cup weather-and-war-chapped hands to the glass, squinting for a look. You hear her again, closer this time.
“Shit… Hang on.”
You can see her marvelous silhouette again, turning over the last of the chairs from the tables off to the right. She walks to the door, gives you a once over.
Through the glass: “How’s your mouth?”
She debates, her right hand hesitating on the lock.
“Can I trust you?”
“I could ask you the same question. Along with a few others.”
“Like, how’d my face get like this?”
She nods to herself, the visible weight of guilt on her heavy eyelids. Throws the lock and steps back.
Blasé as ever: “Don’t get any blood on the floor. I just mopped it.”
She’s behind the bar. The bar from last night, apparently.
A (Peace?) Offering: “Hair of the dog?” She pours herself a shot over tomato juice.
“That bit me? No, thanks.” You grab an upside down stool from the bar top, flip it, and sit, its wood legs catching perfectly in tiled-floor grooves. Usually doesn’t work that way for you. You’re normally the kind of guy who’d flip the stool down off-kilter and go ass-over-elbows. Funny.
“Look, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“How about just everything? Like, from the time I came in here to my interesting little wake-up call.”
“Damn, you really don’t remember anything?”
She downs half the tomato juice in one gulp. Still haven’t seen her in real light, but what you see is still pretty nice. The mascara’s been fixed, hair a little more conservatively pinned back now. In a typical restaurant uniform – black collared shirt, same jeans - an apron over them now, black sneaks. One ear’s pierced six-ways-from-Sunday, all the way up. Must’ve hurt like hell having that done.
No wedding ring. Thank God for small…
“You were here when I came on shift after Happy Hour was over.” She shakes her head. “It’s nothing original, man. You were already buzzing. It was a slow night so I started flirting with you, hoping for a big tip to help even out my night. We got to talking. You made a few jokes, made me laugh… I haven’t done that in a while…You camped out until closing time; I had a couple drinks, too. A couple turned into more than a couple. We were both pretty loaded by then, so I told you I’d walk you back to your motel room.” Then. “You were cute…”
“Thank you for using past tense on that.”
“You were cute. I was lonely and liquored up. Not the first time, you know?”
“Not to downplay what happened between us, but I’m more interested in…”
“Your face, right. I was getting to that.” She drinks the rest of her tomato juice, suppresses a shudder.
“My ex is what happened. He was waiting for me outside, wanted to ‘talk’ to me. Trouble is, his version of ‘talk’ usually involves some form of guilty dispense of discipline on his part.”
“Okay, got it.” You slump off the stool, getting the picture, not really needing the rest of the story. Adventure’s over. Take your lumps with you and go home, asshole. You got what you were looking for, certainly what you deserved.
“He grabbed at me, started calling me all the usual names, and you stepped in and basically took my beating for me, pretty much… Told you it wasn’t anything original.”
You nod, already knowing the answer: “Did I at least get a few licks in?”
Hesitation: “Well… He’s a pretty big guy.”
“A Statey came around, grabbed him and hauled him off to jail. You told him you were okay, didn’t want to file charges. Don’t know why.”
No, but you know why. Probably something (read: everything) to do with what’s in the trunk of your car. After all, now that you’re moderately clear-headed, you can now admit to yourself why you really took that drive, can’t you?
Cathy’s voice, all of a sudden. Biting. Neck Like a Fucking Cobra: “Can’t you, Ron?”
“I took you back to the motel and… I guess we both passed out pretty quick. Sorry. You didn’t even get laid for your chivalry.” She snickers behind her mouth, trying to hold back with a sympathetic smile. It’s more natural than that first smile you saw this morning. Genuine. You get the feeling she doesn’t do that often. It’s nice. And you’re hooked that easily.
“Can I at least make you some breakfast?”
You could swear she finishes that question with the word “sucker.”