Hotel Bound

By Amanda Miller

Essay

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?

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AMANDA MILLER is a writer and editor who lives and works in Toronto, Ontario. She moonlights as a baker and is currently writing a book about the intersections between cake and love. You can find her work in the anthology, The Edible City (Coach House Books, 2009). She also appears online at http://cakesandneckties.wordpress.com and http://hangoverhelper.wordpress.com/.

32 responses to “Hotel Bound”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Yay! Welcome aboard!
    ‘the penis upstairs…’ Love that line!
    I feel like I’ve just been on vacation with you. Lovely piece, Amanda.
    I remember a car trip with my mother and stepfather when I was quite young. I must have been doing something really annoying, because suddenly they stopped the car and told me to get out. I got out of the car, on the abandoned highway and they drove off, leaving me there.
    I knew they would come back for me, but as it was getting dark, I crept off the roadside and hid under a bush. I saw the car come back and stop and my mother get out of the car and frantically start calling for me. ‘Zara! Zara!’ Ha ha. I eventually came out, but not until I really made her sweat….

    • Zara Fischer Harrison says:

      Not only do we sport the same lovely name, Zara, but I have a similar story of my insisting I get out of the car on a foreign Quebec highway at about six with nothing more than my blanky determined to run away! I got about twenty meters and then turned back. My parents took pictures and now we laugh about the, ahem, incident. come to think of it I never have really followed through with most of my good ideas…

    • Amanda says:

      Ha! Awesome. Do you know, since posting this piece, pretty much all my friends have emailed to tell me some variation of their father telling them to get out of the car and then driving away, then presumably their mother telling them the lesson had gone far enough…and, the kid making the parents sweat a bit before getting back in.

      My dad was all about the idle and yet terrifying threat of “wait’ll we get home/ wait’ll I pull over/ wait’ll we get to the your grandmother’s.” You’d think he beat the tar out of us or something, the way those words could make us cringe. Of course, his words made us cringe but not behave, haha…

  2. Slade Ham says:

    I spend a lot of nights in hotels, and it never ceases to amaze me how loud someone peeing in the room above can be. That sound just seems self-amplifying somehow.

    Then I think of how many nights I’ve stumbled back into my own hotel room drunk, and i can’t help but wonder how many times I’ve BEEN that guy upstairs.

  3. Zara Fischer Harrison says:

    Amanda, this piece is lyrical, laugh out loud funny, and leaves me aching for more. Can’t wait to read what comes next on TNB. Congrats on your first post!

  4. […] bright new thing for me at The Nervous Breakdown. Appearing now and then (about twice monthly, if you want to be […]

  5. Marni Grossman says:

    I loved this line in particular: “My mother’s fear of heights is unparalleled; yet, our destinations consistently showcased natural and architectural wonders of altitude.”

    I also noticed that your father and my mother have similar ideas about hotel carpeting. My mother forbade us to walk barefoot in a hotel room. Maybe it’s something they teach in parenting school?

    • Amanda says:

      How about bath tubs amd the top blankets? I could never understand why we weren’t allowed to sit in the tub “right on it, with your bum” or why the first thing my mother did after setting down the suitcases was strip the duvet off the bed. Ewwww.

      Actually, that’s not true–the *first* thing she did was tell my brother and I to put the Bible back in the bureau drawer and stop making fun of the “begat” verses. “You don’t have to believe in god, but it’s not nice to make fun of Jesus!” The *second* thing was strip the bed.

      • Richard Cox says:

        By now I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of taking a black light into a hotel room. Gross.

        • Amanda says:

          Oh my yes. And who can forget the classic epsiode of “The Nature of Things” where David Suzuki had infrared cameras placed all over his home, and documented a day in the life of the kitchen sink sponge, the meat cleaver, the toilet seat, the bed clothes, etc or his family? Gah! So much information…

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    I never really did the family vacation thing; maybe Australia’s just too damn big to ever go anywhere. Thanks for providing more insight than National Lampoon ever did…

    Welcome aboard, Amanda!

    • Amanda says:

      I think Canada and Australia are roughly the same, and equally ill-suited to long-distance family drives. Perhaps the difference isn’t so much geography as our lingering sense of needing to build character, by any means possible.

  7. Irene Zion says:

    This was fun, Amanda!

    It brought back memories of our family road trips with my brother and I fighting like cats and dogs in the back seat and my father trying to swat us with his right hand, but our outsmarting him by squooshing ourselves in the corners of the back seat where his arm couldn’t reach. The fear came when my dad finally said, “Don’t make me stop this car!”
    (We knew about that. We did NOT want him to stop the car.)

    Welcome aboard, Amanda!

    • Amanda says:

      Ohhhh the day we thought we’d plan ahead. Before getting down to brass tacks and really starting to fight, my brother and I each pulled a pillow over our head, so the cooshy part was protecting us from our dad’s flailing hand. He was the master of speeding down the highway while waving his driving gloves over the seat. This time, the blows landed with little flicking sounds on cotton pillow case, and it was all good until he heard us snickering.

      “Oh so smart, we are soooo smart,” we thought to ourselves…heh…yeah. Note: never mock a man whom you have spent the better part of 300 kilometres working into a rage.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Oh Amanda!

        We never even thought of pillows! You two were obviously more devious children than we were.
        (Probably we just weren’t as smart.)

        • Amanda says:

          Perhaps not as smart?

          That’s a tough call. Because, perhaps you didn’t think of pillows, but perhaps you also logged fewer hours confined to your bedroom. Sitting on the threshold between room and hallway, calling out, “Mooooooooooom? Yeah hey mom? Mom? Can I come out now? Has it been twenty minutes? How many then? Only eleven? Ok now, how about now? Is that more like twenty? I promise not to do the pillow thing again. Also, not to laugh at dad. Hey, hey, mom?”

          Sometimes, smart just plain does you wrong.

          : )

  8. Mary says:

    Wow! So many fantastic moments in this piece. Stuff like, “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.” Just stellar. That image is both absurd and comforting. Great job.

    • Amanda says:

      Thanks, Mary! Yeah, there is something about being surrounded by people who allow you to remain oblivious to the fact that they *know* your finger is jammed up your nose…and to whose grodier quirks you, too, are blind.

  9. Richard Cox says:

    I love the story of the progression of your family vacations, from pre-preschool to adolescence, culminating in this line:

    “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.”

    Hahaha.

    Very well-written piece, Amanda. I’d say welcome aboard, but through your comments I feel like you’ve already been here.

  10. Greg Olear says:

    Welcome to TNB, Amanda.

    We have just returned from an impromptu jaunt to the Holiday Inn in Kingston (NY, not Ontario) because of snow/power outage — the first time the kids have successfully slept in a room with us all together. It looks like more family outings to come.

    Have you read Hotel Honolulu by Paul Theroux? It concerns — get ready for this — a hotel in Honolulu. One of my favorite books. He has some insightful things to say about the hotel experience. And Nabokov lived in hotels his entire adult life — the Communist revolution, in which his parents’ property was seized by the state, souring him on the idea of home ownership.

    I always find hotels interesting, and probably always will.

    Anyway, great post.

    • Well done on your first family sleep! In fairness, my father used to get us back for the brutal drives, by snoring like nothing on this earth all night.

      As an aside, I am learning to drive for the first time at age 36, and when I was visiting my parents before Christmas, I drove the three of us to the pub. My mother complimented me on handling the car in snowy conditions then announced, “Once you really think you know what you’re doing, we’re inviting your brother home for the weekend, too. Then we’re going to all get in the car with your father and I in back and we’re going to fight like banshees. Then we’ll see how you do!”

      I haven’t read Hotel Honolulu, but love his other books and will certainly check it out.

  11. Greg Olear says:

    Thanks. The snow forced our hand, as we are loath to travel anywhere where we have to spend the night, as we’ve had some nightmarish evenings.

    Ha ha to your mother. As soon as my daughter leaves for college — possibly the same day — I am taking my wife to Europe for months and months. I really hope I can make that happen.

    Theroux has a number of books, of course. I tend to like his nonfiction better, particularly the book about Vidia Naipul and his longer essay collections. HH was my first exposure to Theroux, and I loved it. I love him in general, even though I tend to be uninterested in where he goes and the sort of life he leads. I just really dig his voice and his brain.

  12. jmblaine says:

    Oh how I hated road trips.
    I cried being away from my bed at home.
    I just wanted to be home.
    I was a big baby.
    Still am.
    Hated Hotels.
    Hated being stuck in the car.

    One good story though.

    I had a vocation that required travel for awhile
    and it was with friends
    and once in the bathroom of this ratty motel
    we heard the neighbors say
    “Gah, I can totally hear peeing.”
    So after that we would stand up on the vanity
    with one hand on the ceiling
    for maximum distance to the bowl.

    There were no girls in the band.

    • Amanda says:

      Very nice.

      Confession: I once decided to learn how to pee standing up, because of the opportunity to would afford me to make a whole lot of noise when peeing in hotel rooms/ public restrooms/ etc. Alas, it just seemed too unladylike and I gave that project up before I reached the “standing on the vanity” stage.

      Perhaps a case of giving up too soon, haha!

  13. Reno J. Romero says:

    amanda-

    i love road trips and i love road trip stories. travel stories in general. folks in new places. hell, even old places. because even in old places things still HAPPEN. you have such great tone and style. YOU are a great writer and i’m so pleased to see you here delivering us the goods. i look forward to more stuff and even more: your wonderful emails. good luck on the project. i’m tossing you a good luck stone.

    yup,
    reno

    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.

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