We drive right up to the door. The plastic key tag clatters when you drop it atop the low chest of drawers. The wood is scratched, but not from the grind of hard suitcases. No one ever unpacks here. The TV is bolted to the wall and Gideon’s Bible is missing from the nightstand. A Cheez-It crunches beneath my heel when I cross the green carpet.
This time it’s Room Eight, which is just like Room Three and Eleven and even the noisy end room, Nineteen, where mold grows in the ice machine just outside the door, yet guests still come to fetch ice cubes because the wind has swept away the hand-scrawled sign Out of Order. Eight is good. Eight seems lucky, because I can catch a glimpse of the seaport through the broken venetian blind in the high bathroom window.
The breeze outside is warm and smells of brown beaded seaweed and damp sand. Yet the motel bathroom is tinged with the odor of Tidy Bowl and wrapped soap. Rust dots the tile and I can practically feel the towels becoming thinner by the minute.
In this, my worst moment—the clinical insertion of my diaphragm—I can stave off sadness by listening for the waves lapping the shore. I can close my eyes and imagine bluebottle flies buzzing around the stiff spokes of a beach umbrella. Boats glide out of the harbor, their foghorns sounding a mournful blast, and seagulls call.
You sit on the edge of the bed and stub your Camel in the ashtray with the picture of the Charles W. Morgan, Mystic’s famous whaling ship, embedded in the thick glass bottom. When I come out of the bathroom naked, you are flopped like a dead fish on the bed, staring at the walls where whale upon whale, uniform as the stitches that once came off my mother’s treadle sewing machine, swim around the border of the wallpaper, while underneath in upright Yankee script THAR SHE BLOWS! is solemnly printed and repeated ad infinitum—a proclamation that on our first awkward visit here reduced us to helpless laughter.
Last fall, watching you walk the office halls, I sensed that you, too, did not want a life governed by yellow Post-It note reminders. I imagined you too cringed whenever you heard the ding! of your Outlook calendar calling you to endless meetings catered with muddy Maxwell House coffee and Dunkin’ Donut holes brought in by the boss to reward folks for meeting the challenge, making the deadline, being team players. I imagined you too sat in your office idly separating the jumbo from the regular paper clips in your desk drawer and longing for your annual vacation at the shore, where you could shed your shirt and tie and bask in the warm sand.
I knew you felt something for me when you pulled my name in the Secret Santa grab bag and, confined by the ten-dollar spending limit, gave me not a cat calendar or a fake leather portfolio with a mini-calculator and ballpoint pen, but a brown-and-white striped whelk, which I immediately held to my ear to hear the sound of the ocean.
You wore a wedding ring and so did I. Yet as we sat by the silver-tinseled Christmas tree sipping eggnog and listening to Mel Torme croak out a carol, you told me a story: in high school you watched a boy drown in the rough waves of Hammonassett Beach following a hurricane. The wooden lifeguard chairs were toppled into the sand, the grass on the dunes bent back in the wind, and the beach littered with rocks and seaweed and the silver bodies of dead fish, their eyes covered with sandflies. The boy went out on a drunken dare and disappeared into the frothy waves. For a minute, he was nothing but a head bobbing in the churning water, and then he went under. I watched it happen, you said. One of those moments you remember forever.
Later, in Room Three of the Motel 6, after I grew so full of you I felt like the first Chinese brother who swallowed the sea, you said you sometimes envied the boy, who did not have to grow up and slosh through the slush downtime at Christmastime, looking for a gift for a woman he no longer loved. Lucky boy, who would never grow into a man whose children said, I know that, Dad. And when you asked what I might envy about a drowned girl, I said: that she would never have a husband who travels so much he’s become nothing more than a voice on the other end of the telephone wire.
If I had you—you said—I would never leave you.
This promise seems faded now as the wallpaper, where water bursts only intermittently from the silly little spouts of the THAR SHE BLOWS whales, reminding me of the swift entrances and exits of the huge, slithering sea mammals I once saw when my parents, so long ago, took me whale-watching in Cape Cod. The boat groaned and tilted and almost tipped, and after whale after whale beat their magnificent slick tails, spraying us with the saltiest water I ever tasted, my mother and father took me down to Hyannis where I sucked on a pistachio salt water taffy and we watched women in Colonial dress dip wicks in the window of a candle shop.
Dead men and women have no regrets. Yet they also have no joyful moments that bob ashore in their memory. These are mine: the time I climbed a lighthouse and looked out over the Long Island Sound, the time I buried a dead seagull with great pomp and circumstance on the no-swimming side of the beach, the time I rode a yellow school bus back from the fifth-grade field trip to the Seaport, clutching my souvenir—a miniature schooner trapped in a tiny bottle with a precious red cork—as my classmates sang, “Four in a bed and the little one said, roll over, roll over!”
Yet this, of all the horrible moments, is the one I’ll later recall of you: the distant look in your eyes, as if you were already watching the horizon for the next ship to come in, when I asked, “Do you remember that song about how they all rolled over and one fell out, until there was none left in the bed except the little one who said goodnight?”