NO VACANCY

November 5, 2021

by Divya Maniar

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                                                                                Clean and Free Wi-Fi

                                                                                      TELEPHONE

                                                                          Swimming pool + Cable TV


He slowed the car. “This one?”  Before I could respond, he ruled the option out for himself. “No,” he said “looks….weird.”

He had spent the past few hours doing this, rejecting motels for not perfectly fulfilling an ever-growing and increasingly specific set of made-up criteria. He cited minor inconveniences and challenges, though many of these were also imaginary, and declared them to be insurmountable faults. “The lights are off at the front desk,” he said, even if they were not. Or, he commented that it looked run down, dirty. Sandpaper walls, flies falling helplessly upward, into the flickering neon. Besides, he would joke, we were not so far from home. He would say this though we were very far from our apartment, with our moss-green couch. Then he’d laugh, “Wanna pull an all-nighter?”

Columbia, Missouri. He pulled back into the highway, and I yawned. I was grateful for my teary eyes, because it was their moisture that kept them from closing. “There?” I pointed at blurry signs in the distance, hoping that he would catch on to the fact that I had desperately wanted a bed, no matter how hard and lumpy the mattress was. “Nah,” he replied.

I had suspected, for a while, that this restless and paranoid obstinateness was simply his nature. He worked and worked; before deciding to quit to take this trip with me, he was known as a ‘consulting prodigy,’ often staying up till three in the morning to do whatever it was that they did at a firm which I know better than to name, a company which, in his own words, “sucked the soul outta you through the asshole.”

Though he promised that his choosing to quit his job, and his asking to take a long road trip with me, was an attempt to ‘lead a healthier lifestyle,’ I noticed that he would still only rest at the last possible minute, when his body screeched against its own weight, when he felt like a building so structurally unsound that a tremor, let alone the earthquake itself, would be enough to topple it. It took a lot, though, to reach this point. Old habits died slowly.

Unlike my boyfriend, I rarely had any desire to show resilience. In fact, I was much too easily worn thin by even the most trivial of hindrances. I was as fragile as a too-vigorously rolled sheet of dumpling paper; I was a casualty of my own pliability, a thing soft and delicate to the point that it became impossible to touch, almost. I was tired, and I lacked the will to fight my body, which was always in the mood for languishing.

All this aside, I did try my hardest to keep myself alert so long as he was awake and we were on the road.

This was at his request. “Still, I mean, if you can’t take over, because you’re too tired,” he said, “you should be there. Awake. At least awake enough to know if I’m asleep. You know, to wake me up.”


I asked, “Are you about to fall asleep?”

He did not reply. Of course, this was two hours ago, and here we were, still awake.


“Come on,” I said, nudging him. “Neither of us are enjoying this.”

For a moment, we were quiet.

“You’re right,” he said. “It’s just that—well, I don’t really know. There’s nothing good enough. We’ll pull in to the next one though, promise.”

A truck whirred past, and disappeared into the dark behind our headlights. We followed it but never found it. Was it in a rush?

We played a game of speculation, as we so often did. “Perhaps it is delivering eggs to a diner, and has to get there by three in the morning.”

“Full of furniture, maybe, ordered express by a real-estate agent, so that she can finish staging a house before her first client gets there in the morning.”

“Hmmm,” he said, “I think it is empty. I think the driver’s a tired man, who wants desperately for his journey to end.”

We stopped speculating there, because his voice grew soft and in it I sensed the same heartbreak that I had felt all through our long drives.

Now that the truck was gone, the road was empty, but for us.

We kept on going for twenty minutes, until, finally, we found a familiar red-and-green sign, stood against the dark sky, a gesture that was equal parts heroic and desperately sad.

It is true that, by then, we had seen every variety of motel. Some were flat, rectangular, and lined with sleeping cars. Others had teepee-tents, swimming pools. One had a big neon bird.

The one we saw now, waiting patiently for us with its flickering invitation, blended perfectly into all those others.  As we got closer, I divined no real distinguishing features, because, when boiled down, all gimmicks are pretty much the same. Pink flamingoes, bright lights, small blue vats of more-chlorine-than-water—all of this felt quite similar, no matter where we went. Motels were not unlike people: they dressed themselves up as much as they could be bothered to, and waited around hoping to catch someone in the mood to settle, to sleep for a short while, maybe to eat and have a coffee and breathe and make noise. Motels are lonely, empty vessels. They yearn to be filled, all while knowing that anybody who would stumble upon them in the dead of night could only provide a small and ephemeral sense of relief, a short moment of solidarity for the downtrodden cream walls. Human warmth is just subtle enough to be fleeting; a slept-in bed retains the shape and heat of a body only for a short while, before turning cold again.

At this motel, there was an old woman pacing around behind the front desk. She was barely more than a ghost. Her body looked like an elaborately arranged sculpture of toothpicks, just waiting to be blown apart by the wind, or by some guest’s too-forceful sneeze.

“Wait here,” the old woman told us, in a voice more commanding than her body should have allowed.

I waited as we were checked in, windows down. The door-chime rang. There was a muted conversation. “Room four,” I heard. Four is bad luck, I knew, because my mother had told me once that four was death. She had said this in an elevator whose buttons read “3,” then “5,” skipping “4” entirely.  At this point, I would have rather risk a cursed room than the road, so I said nothing about the unlucky number on the tacky red label affixed to the key.

We walked back to the car, and drove less than twenty feet to a parking spot in the gravel, right in front of a wood door with a little patio set beside it. There was a near imperceptible layer of dust on the table.


I yawned. Crickets rubbed their legs together. I rubbed my hands together. He twisted the room-key into its hole. I locked the car door.

The room was bare, with nothing on the walls but a small painted flower. There was an empty vase, a kettle, and a mini-fridge. The bed looked clean enough, though it smelled musty.

In truth, this motel was even worse than the ones with the ugly fake palm trees, about which I so often complained. The heater loudly hummed despite the fact that it was the summertime. The fridge was not very cold, and the bed was hardly soft. The overhead light dangled on a brown chain, a bulb wrapped in a porcelain cover that looked more intricately designed than the worn-down space had deserved.

In any case, I was thankful for this room, because it was where we had chosen to stop, and where, even if only momentarily, we would end our transit.

But I knew, as I lay facing the window and he lay facing the wall, that tomorrow would just be more of the same. We would set off from this musty room in search of another, and then another after that. Over and over we were bound to take detours, lengthening our journey home. Then we were bound to fall tiredly into the stained embrace of our last resort, and wake up dissatisfied.

“I don’t want our journey to end this way,” he would tell me, after such a night. Then we would go off again, looking for something special, something nice enough to feel like a good ending, a real ending, something we could look upon fondly when we remembered our travels.

In short, we were meant to be back days ago, but we have been unable to bring ourselves to the finality that awaited us when we returned.

‘Home,’ to many, was a comfort. To us, it was a defeat. We knew that we had achieved little of what we wanted to achieve on this trip. Neither of us had transformed, as we had expected to, through the allegedly miraculous effects of travel; our relationship, which had already been on the brink of failure, was certainly not saved by the nights we spent arguing over maps, or the days we spent at cliff edges and souvenir shops. Quite often, all the beauty of the world is not enough.

What happens when we get home? When we had to sit down and decide whether or not we would stay with one another? Neither of us knew. So, every shit motel begot another, and each night we found ourselves lured in by promises of sweet sleep, after such long days of searching.


Tonight, we found ourselves here while tomorrow remained a question. Where would we be tomorrow, if not at our end?

“I love you,” he whispered, as he held a pillow.

“I love you too,” I responded. He fell asleep before me, but I lay there wondering if loving something meant anything more than wanting desperately to delay the loss of that thing, fearing the emptiness that it could, in its exit, leave behind.

I love you: words that had become some sort of secret code, a concise way of saying that we were both afraid of how alone we would be without each other, how empty, how uninhabited. Two motels at opposite ends of the earth, infinitely vacant. Through the blinds, I could kind of make out the glow of headlights—a car neared, hovering on the highway’s shoulder. Then, it drove away.

 

DIVYA MANIAR

Divya Maniar is a Singaporean writer. She got her B.A. in Philosophy and Comparative Literature at Brown, and is pursuing an MPhil in English at Cambridge University. Her work can be found in Joyland Magazine, Hobart, Babel Tower Notice Board, and elsewhere. She is on twitter @divyalymaniar.