JUNE 2009


My Motel Week
By Jessa Marsh, May 13, 2009

“You know what just popped into my head? Julie and her amputee. Out of fucking nowhere.” Anna’s body is outstretched on scratchy, over-starched sheets, sheets that smell like the bar of green soap we washed each other with earlier in the pink-tiled, soap scum-covered motel shower. Her laugh rings through the motel room, a low rasping laugh, bouncing off yellowed floral wallpaper. Her voice is rougher than appropriate for her years. When I close my eyes and hear her talk, I imagine wrinkles, I imagine graying hair.

“Julie’s amputee. That sleazy bastard.”

Anna rolls onto those thick hips, looks right at me, right into the blacks of my eyes. I am taking her in, surveying her landscape, the porcelain skin, the freckles dotting her breasts in circles around pale pink nipples, when she says, “Just like you, babe. He was an old pervert just like you. Except of course you have two legs, so you have no excuses. Two legs, two arms, two eyes. You had a chance to be normal and you fucked it up.”

“I’m not a fuck-up,” I say. As soon as the words hit the air I realize how meek they sound, like the protesting of a kid who knows he’s been caught in the act of writing on his bedroom walls.

“In what world are you not a fuck-up? Do people with their shit together bail on their entire lives like you did, mid-business trip nonetheless. I mean, wasn’t that important? And you just gave up on it to fuck around with me. Not that I’ve minded. Much. You’ve had your fun moments.”

Her hand is on my stomach, her middle and index fingers ice skating. I think of how my gut has grown since the last new woman, since I first met Christine. The decade between thirty-three and forty-three had been a decade of slow, inevitable weight gain, of quiet and predicable happiness, of take-out and movie rentals three times a week. I roll to my side, knocking over the ice skating fingers. I’m facing Anna now, so close that my nose is in her hair, so close that my lips hum with the vibrations of her laugh. Her hair is dry and cherry red and it smells like cheap apple shampoo. The florescent lights filter through it and everything I see—the popcorn ceiling, the pine headboard, the watercolor painting of sailboats over the bed—it is all red.

“Anyway, if I am an old pervert, then you are the kind of girl who picks up old perverts. What would Freud say about you?”

I laugh, a growling chuckle, but Anna does not. Now it’s ferocious, her stare, right into my spoiled, aged eyes. There isn’t going to be much more of this and we both know it. Real lives await us. Anna has friends, family, and a job at a diner to go back to. I have a neighborhood drycleaner, a few magazine subscriptions, and an empty house. Maybe I could get a dog.

“Fine. We won‘t talk about that. How did he lose his leg?”

“Well, the story is that when he was a kid, about fifteen or so, that he was fucking around down by the railroad tracks. The tracks run parallel to the highway. He jumps onto a railroad car, because the thing isn’t going that fast, because it’s just a freight train, you know? And he climbs the ladder straight to the top of the train, hops from one car to the next, giving all the traffic driving past a show, like a fucking clown, dancing on the top of the train. Until the inevitable. He’s having too much fun, not paying attention to his footing and he falls right between two cars. Bam. He’s under the train. Now, I don’t know about you, but personally I’d lay there and pray that no chains are dangling low enough to smash me in the fucking face. But not this guy. He decides that he has to roll out from under the train. So I guess he must have counted to three, thought about God for the first time since his Catechism, and rolled as fast as he could when he saw a space between wheels. And he got out too—but he left his leg behind him, right at the knee.”

“That’s gruesome, Anna.” While she speaks she runs her hands through my hair, her fingernails scraping just slightly. My nerve endings are alert, pleased, like a neglected old mutt being petted for the first time in months. It amazes me how desperate for little scraps of affection I am. It hadn’t been that long since Christine had left, moving all of her stuff out of the little suburban house we had shared for going on six years. All of her clothes, her books, her framed family photographs, all the little pieces of evidence that she existed were packed up and moved, all in one three-day Memorial Day weekend. If someone walked through the house now they’d never be able to guess that night after night I listened to the gargling snores of a beautiful woman who once loved me. It hadn’t been four months since Christine yet, definitely not long enough to justify the irrational joy I got out of running off with the first girl who showed interest, some twenty-year-old waitress at a tiny diner in Kansas City, not long enough to justify a sex binge in a string of small town motels, not long enough for the goosebumps running down my arms and back from the sensation of short fingernails, painted blue and chipped by a nervous chewing habit.

“And then what?”

“Then what? Then he was a gimp for the rest of his life.”

“No, I mean, did he, like, hop to the highway and flag down a car?”

“Do you live in a complete fucking fantasy world? How did you hold down a nine to five with the brains of an eight-year-old? Did he hop? Of course not. Some guy in a truck saw it and pulled over. Dumbass.”

We are quiet for a moment and I focus on making my breathing match up with hers. I slowly drag air in, hold it for longer than feels natural, then release too quickly. Her breathing, like her voice, brings to mind women older than me. Then she speaks, and I can’t hear her breath over her voice. I have forgotten the natural pace of my own breath and I struggle to draw air into my lungs alone for a second.

“You know, what he really wanted was to make the best fake legs in the fucking world. Studied anatomy in college for a while to see how legs worked, took engineering classes to learn how to build things. He was like an encyclopedia about the most specific shit. He knew more about plastic and joints than anyone you’d meet.”

While she talks I wonder if he succeeded. I decide that he didn’t, but I hope that he did. I don’t know if this makes me a pessimist or an optimist, but there is a dull ache in my heart when I realize that I care at all about Julie’s amputee, a character in some story told by a girl I had known only for a week. “Well, did he do it? Did he make better legs?”

“Well, if I tell you that Julie met him when he was forty-six and they were both working at a Domino’s, would that answer your question?”

“Jesus, Anna. Why are you even telling me this?”

“Why? It’s a fucking story. This is what men and women do. They get drunk and naked and they fuck and then they tell bullshit stories. It’s getting to know each other. Aren’t you old enough to know this kind of shit by now, Mr. Mid-life-crisis?”

While she speaks she gestures to the motel room, as if the halfway open duffle bag stuffed with her ratty jeans and my white T-shirts, the emptied beer bottles, and the dried-up leftover Chinese food could perfectly illustrate her point.

“But that story wasn’t about you. That was getting to know Julie’s amputee. Why’d you tell me that story?”

Anna pulls her hips under her, putting all her weight on her pelvis. For a moment I see the curves of her ass, the dimples on the small of her back. I feel a small sensation of victory, the kind of victory I shared with friends over beers at other points in my life. Now I wouldn’t know who to call, who to brag to about the twenty- year-old I was sharing a bed and a dollar store toothbrush with. My friends were Christine’s friends—when she left, so did they, citing bonds with her that went back further, ran deeper than the ones they had with me. I had been isolated from every familiar face in our suburb.

When Anna rolls over she flips her hair, hitting me in the face with dried split-ends. I instinctively blink, protecting my eyes from the cherry red strands, and when I open them she is resting her chin on her hands which bend inward at the wrists. Her fingers intertwine lazily. She is looking straight at me. Her stare is now drained of the curiosity that attracted me to her one week ago. Now they are only sharpened with resentment. For just a second, I long for plastic upholstered booths, for nearly empty glass ketchup bottles, for Formica tables riddled with wads of gum. I think of Anna in her uniform—a pair of faded black pants, unflattering, fraying at the ends, and a bright red polo shirt embossed with the words Marla’s Kountry Kitchen. I think of the hope I had at the time, the idea that this girl, this young girl with badly applied eyeliner and a gruff smoker’s voice could be the reason Christine left. Maybe this girl, I thought, was the reason I let myself cool to Christine over the years, pulling away to the point where we became more roommates than lovers.

“Fine. You want to know why that story? Then it’s that story because in the end, nothing is gonna save you. Not plastic limbs, not Jesus, Joseph, or PB fucking S. Not yourself, not Julie, and never—and I mean fucking never—Anna.”

“Babe, is that really what you think?”

“Yeah, it is. Absolutely.”

“Boy, do I wish I was young enough for absolutes.”

For the first time since we met, we don’t have sex before we fall asleep. We don’t even turn off the lights. Anna just pulls the stiff brown comforter over her body, rolls towards the wall, and her breathing slows with sleep after a while. I stare up, searching out patterns in the popcorn ceiling. In the morning I’ll drive her back to Kansas City and I can already tell there will be no words save sharply stated directions. There will be no goodbyes, and then I’ll drive away, not knowing exactly where to go.

Jessa Marsh is a fiction writing student at Columbia College, and her work has been previously published in Word Riot.