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
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?”