My family loved road trips. Collective confinement we loved somewhat less. My brother and I fought like thugs, my father was seething before we reached the city limits, and my mother’s duties trebled during this so-called time off, as she became not just mother but navigator and referee. Her warnings that we’d better not make our father stop the car earned brief respite from the din of our tiny, angry voices. We knew we deserved a good murdering and believed that one day dad would pull onto the shoulder and deliver.
Summer never meant a holiday from learning, even though school was out. Vacations were controlled trials conducted in a four-wheeled laboratory, during which we rated backseat assault techniques, determined how many inches you could walk your fingers across The Line, and whether fourteen days in a stifling station wagon could break the spirit.
The birth of our epic holidays appears to coincide with mine. Pre-1973 photographs depict my parents close to home: grilling burgers in kicky aprons; toasting occasions with bottles of Mateus; tipping out of lawn chairs in clogs and feathered hairdos. Once I was old enough to travel, I think they compiled a list of enriching activities then executed them for our own good. We camped and shared cottages with other young families, engaging in leisure pursuits that instead wound my parents like clock-springs. Maybe they didn’t know they hated these things till we were in the thick of it, and learned more than they cared to during those years.
Then my brother was born and they upped the ante with marathon car trips. My mother’s fear of heights is unparalleled; yet, our destinations consistently showcased natural and architectural wonders of altitude. Over thirteen summers, we documented how high she could ascend before crippling terror struck. We visited Niagara Falls and the CN Tower, and rode cable cars over vertiginous gorges. At age six, I was left atop a forest ranger lookout tower while my dad carried my mother to the ground. And of course there were amusement parks where brightly painted machines chucked her children into the air while she plotted our trajectory, estimating where we’d land if the Octopus launched a round purple car toward the candy apple concession.
Our 1986 cross-Canada journey through the Rockies is legendary, and my mother enjoyed it huddled beneath the dashboard, a pillow mashed against her face to block out the cliffs dropping away just feet from the passenger side of the car. Years later, during our drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, my brother nearly did her in when his practical joke – dropping behind our parked car at a lookout point south of Carmel – came off too convincingly and my mother bolted from the vehicle, certain her son had tumbled over the edge.
I was a vicious sleepwalker, and again my mother caught the worst, bunking with me and sustaining a broken nose at the Rainbow Inn. As for motel beds in general, the Miller Family Vacation School adopted a revisionist curriculum on how other people might pass time in rented rooms, my brother and I unclear why there were never coins to operate the bed vibrator, no matter how loudly dad’s pockets jangled during the day.
Our final vacation saw my sullen, heavy-metal-loving brother tromping speechless while I flipped the bird at other tourists who gawked at my blue hair. Perhaps this was what enabled our parents to plow through years of bickering, knowing that eventually hormones would hobble us and then we’d travel in silence, too paralysed by angst to bother swatting at each other. Family trips were hugged by the parentheses of honeymoon and beachfront retirement, and if they closed their eyes, they could taste the solitude and salty air.
Now, traveling without us, I wonder if my parents are roused by little ghosts tussling over the bed sheets, or creep off to the lounge as though the room harbours phantom children from whom they must escape. As a solo traveler, I check in then flounder in the excess space, conditioned by strings of days with less than five feet between me, the bed, toilet, and three other bodies. Bodies with ears to hear you sing in the shower and fart in the night, and eyes to catch you in underpants from yesterday, picking your nose till you fall asleep.
In the absence of hotel companionship, I get absorbed by the excruciating minutiae of an orderly room: fat fresh roll of bathroom tissue with end folded to a point, drinking glasses crowned with paper caps, brochures pushing mustn’t-miss attractions, blankets taught, phone cord coiled snugly around the body of the apparatus. Conducting this inventory is a custom of comfort – if every hotel is the same, then it’s like checking into my own home. Housekeeping teams descend like locusts to digest any evidence of guests; yet, I can’t shake Hotel Rule #1, barked by my father in places sketchy and swanky alike: keep your face and hands off the goddamn carpet, you never know what’s been spilled there!
No longer bobbing in the crowded bubble of a family vacation, I’ve discovered that hotels can be places of acute isolation and private intrigue. On a recent business trip, I became hotel-bound, lolling in a fully loaded suite while a blizzard raged outside. Once the shine wore off the all-access cable and playing bartender with mini-bar gin, I skulked around the lobby like Hammett’s Continental Op, peeking around newspapers and projecting racy lives onto plain people with homely suitcases.
I imagined fanciful scenes of strangers converging and filled my evenings by inventing the life of the overhead guest, fleshing him out from sounds that leaked through the night. Instead of battling my brother until I drifted off, I was lulled by the elevator shushing between floors and the man upstairs in 2804 peeing, no flush. I’d say he peed more than average but about him I knew nothing more. I heard no footfalls, no visitors knocking, no doors slamming. Perhaps all that peeing occurred with the bathroom door ajar, with reckless disregard for privacy and no inkling that I was building him from the bladder up.
My trip wore on, and my relationship with the hotel distilled into a fixation upon 2804. I cast him aping my activities, narrating a routine for him as I went about my own. Perhaps he watches television and eats Chinese take-away straight from paper cartons. Maybe he saves the chopsticks for when the pizzeria forgets to include cutlery with the steaming cardboard box and single tin of Italian soda. After dinner, he might stretch his spine and legs, joints unfurling. I see us stacked one storey apart, bending to touch our feet, hauling in deep breaths, blowing stale air from our bellies, lowering our chests to the floor. I can wrangle my body into bow pose; he tips side to side and just can’t get a grip on his left ankle. His neck strains and his cheeks get pink. “Fucking yoga!” breaks into his thoughts of water, wind, silence and purity.
Or perhaps he’s a hotel deadbeat, wallowing in the seclusion of the “Do Not Disturb” sign, ordering then only picking at room service treats, scattering towels through the freshly straightened suite, chugging child-size servings of rye and screw-top wine from the mini-bar then, come morning, ignoring the wake-up call he requested the night before.
Before I checked out, I said good-bye to the sound of my neighbour whom I gave only luggage, a yoga routine, and plentiful pee. Stationed at the window waiting for my taxi, I heard rain pelting the glass and pooling on the concrete sill, and piss pelting the water in the toilet upstairs. I heard myself breathing and the radio turned down low. No wind, no yard dogs, no kids, no cars. Only water: falling from the clouds outside and falling from a penis upstairs.
In many ways, I grew more childish during that business trip. At age twelve, I’d felt certain I could pass for a worldly fourteen and sauntered to the ice machine as though a clutch of guests had stepped out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and into my hotel room, where they awaited my sophisticated return, cups tilted to accept fresh ice and fizzy drinks. At 30, I was sure to pack my lucky pants and my sock monkey, and was delighted when the maid tucked my little toy between the sheets as part of the turn-down service, red yarn smile welcoming me to slumber.
Perhaps, like Holly Golightly, I move about in search of a place to belong, but never finding it, am drawn back home. Or, perhaps hotels simply buffet me with a gust of romance, shaking out stories to make these plain buildings seem greater than they are. Because really, that business trip was just business. And those family vacations were common excursions, which we now milk for stories both sentimental and self-deprecating. “Remember when…” might introduce a misty-eyed recollection of mountain goats traversing an Alberta ridge. Or, it could launch an account of my brother sleeping on the floor, touching the goddamn carpet with his face, afraid he would kill me if he brushed my Sarasota-in-August sunburn. This was wise. If I went in the night, who would he pit himself against on the next leg of the journey?