lit issue 2020

The Hotel off Highway 81

When I was 17 and she was 18, she and I decided to get a cheap motel room. We thought it was a preview for what our life would be like once we got our own place. It was a cold February night, with buttery clouds streaking across the sky. The end-of-winter chill glittered in the air and she drove, because I didn’t have my license. I still don’t. I watched her, impressed by her ability to turn and halt a car. I played Broadway musical soundtracks that she tolerated because she loved me. Small town America is hideous, an endless, sparse landscape of gas stations and chain restaurants. Still, creamsicle evening light has the power to make even bare, capitalism-choked land gorgeous and romantic, or maybe that was her. We stopped at a supermarket and bought 99 cent ramen; we microwaved it and ate it in our 60 dollar room. It took us three tries to find a place that let kids under 21 rent a room, but the Econo lodge employee rolled his eyes and checked us in. We were not the first teenage couple to sneak into a motel room to get away from our parents, but we felt that we were doing something groundbreaking. We felt so grown up, not having to worry about being quiet or someone coming home early. Between laughter, I kissed her neck, then traced my finger over the mark there in the shape of a comma, a half moon, a teardrop. She played soft music through her tinny phone speakers. When she touched me, the world spun itself into a silvery haze and I felt like a wave, cresting and then spilling over in a bright white shudder. A silver barrette clung to her hair and twinkled. I plucked it out and set it to the side. I would have unraveled myself for her, would have deconstructed my ribs and lungs to make her laugh that way forever. I felt our souls take root beside each other’s in the earth, somewhere deep and ancient where we had always been waiting for one another. Afterwards, we looked at each other and breathed. I studied her face and found that I couldn’t find words to adequately capture her impossible reality. The deep coffee color in her eyes justified new words, new language, new religion. We took a shower, our hands soft and familiar against each other’s bodies, working cheap hotel shampoo through one another’s hair. I put on her T-shirt, not because I had forgotten mine, but because even when she was beside me, I wanted to be close to her. We shared a cream soda and a pint of Cherry Garcia. She put the music back on and we held each other, swaying half in tempo to an acoustic pop song. I was taller than her, but when she held me she always felt like the bigger one. I still don’t think most people ever feel close to anyone in their whole lives the way I did to her that night. If she’d asked me to run away with her, I would have said yes. We fell asleep curled into crescents against one another and woke up like that too. 

I haven’t seen her in years, and cannot remember the lilt of her breath or the slope of her spine anymore. I no longer miss her, but I cannot think of the joy of that night without grieving. Sometimes I think back to it and smile, before remembering what came after. I no longer listen to the songs she was playing.