This is part one of what I hope will be a semi-regular series covering a short period in my life when I was (sometimes concurrently) an inveterate partier, a sober kid, an imported, unhappy resident of the now beleaguered gulf coast, a GAP employee, a fiancee, a runaway bride, a psycho ex-girlfriend, an intranational hobo and, as you are about to read, the booker of the filthiest hotel in all of Lawton on what was most certainly the worst road trip of my life.
The expedition was doomed from the beginning.
A third of the way into a 15-hour trip–a trip undertaken in the evening on my father’s advice “to avoid traffic”–we were standing in the parking lot of a truck stop in West Des Moines at midnight, arguing across the top of the sedan I’d borrowed from my parents.
We were fighting over whether or not someone should stay awake with the driver, and my best friend and boyfriend were united against me.
I didn’t want anyone falling asleep at the wheel. In my head, the only outcome that mattered was the very worst one I could think of. That and getting my way.
They both wanted to be able to sleep whenever they weren’t driving.
Evy said it was “fuckin’ stupid, Becky” for two people to sit awake when it only takes one to drive. Kerry started out diplomatically, trying to assuage my fears, but he quickly became impatient listening to two 19 year-old girls scream at each other to “stop being such a baby!” and “stop being such a bitch!”
It was the culmination of an argument that began somewhere in southern Minnesota and persisted, off and on, most of the way to that point. Finally, at midnight, with the threat–and need–of going to sleep imminent, the dam broke. I started crying. No one loved me. Kerry would probably leave me for Evy, since they agreed on so goddamn much, apparently. The world was ending, my friend hated me, and probably, we were all going to die in piss stink Iowa to boot.
“I’M NOT GOING TO FUCKING FALL ASLEEP, BECKY.”
I slumped into the car, gasping and sniffling. “Jesus Christ,” Evy huffed, and got into the backseat, manhandling her pillow into place to accommodate the sleep she wouldn’t get. Kerry came around and shut my door.
Evy was a tomboy like me, a Pisces like me, a skinny, doe-eyed thing like me–like, like, like, everything alike. But she was dark-haired, dark-eyed, more confident and adventurous than I was, less brooding and more sultry-earthy, and, most importantly to me at the time, she had a power over men that I simply did not have.
I was all air and distance, blond and wispy, always the friend girl, and forever patting some guy’s hand over his unrequited crush on Evy, despite myriad acknowledgments from people all around us that she and I were alike enough to be interchangeable in any given situation.
In reality, my boyfriend and best friend would not be eloping together anytime soon; we were on our way to Lawton, Oklahoma to see Paul, Evy’s fiance and Kerry’s best friend, graduate from basic training.
I stayed awake with Kerry. Then I drove. I was determined to seize control of the situation one way or another.
All in all, the drive worked out as my dad had envisioned. We got into Lawton in the afternoon the following day, went to bed early, and slept 12 hours, hard, until the next morning.
There was a family picnic and meet & greet that day, where we’d eat hot dogs, drink lemon-flavored waterade, and see Paul for the first time since he left for basic. We awoke with the bright idea to order room service. Why we thought we should do something like that at the shittiest motel in all of Lawton remains a mystery. But we were young and free. Free of any knowledge of where else to get food. Free to order room service. Just like grown-ups, just like in the movies.
We didn’t get eggs benedict and croissants and champagne, though; we got tiny boxed cereals and bananas. We washed it all down with Dr. Pepper and cigarettes.
Kerry ordered; I sat wrapped around him like he was the only buoyant object in an expanse of deep water.
At the time and as far as 20 year-old guys went, Kerry was pretty muscular. Looking at the picture now at 32, I realize he looks kind of juvenile and scrawny. His face (which was lovely) must be obscured since he is the only one of my exes with whom I am no longer on friendly terms. This was not my choice. It is never my choice to not be on speaking terms with anyone, especially people I was ever close to.
But the wound I left on Kerry stuck. For all my tending, I couldn’t fix it, and although it’s a separate story altogether, it is important to note that I consider it one of the greatest failings of my life, not because I loved him but because, in the end, I didn’t.
After Evy took the picture, she flopped onto her bed and immediately exploded in a stream of obscenities.
“OW! WHAT THE FUCK? MOTHERFUCKER!!! WHAT WAS THAT?!?!?! FUCK!!!”
She tore at the sheets, first running her hand over them, hard, then ripping them off completely.
“Look at this!!!”
She turned her leg sideways to reveal a thin scrape, about 5 inches long. Either a pin or a needle. It couldn’t have been anything else. There was a moment of silence. Kerry started laughing. “You have AIDS,” he said.
“Holy shit, Dude!” I said, “Go wash it!”
Evy bolted for the shower.
At that moment, it dawned on me how much of a dump the place actually was. There were stains on the curtains, stains on the wall, and the donut holes we bought the evening before at a gas station were already covered in fruit flies.
I had booked the hotel. This was my doing. I don’t know if it could have been avoided, since we were dirt poor kids and the online hotel reservations of 1997 were in no way comparable to the ones we have now. There were no customer reviews indicating that the rooms were full of insect life and, potentially, infectious diseases. All I knew was that it was cheap, and it had a pool. A pool!
The heat outside was incredible. Lawton was not a particularly cozy, comfortable town to begin with, and between the heat and filthy accommodations, everything about the place was loathsome.
I don’t remember much about the picnic except for hanging back. I’d never been on a military base before. Gates and fences. A million outbuildings full of unknown goings-on, men (maybe some women, but it wasn’t easy to tell) moving around a sea of dirt on currents of asphalt. Not much grass. I couldn’t decide who they all were or what they were up to. Some were marching, some were jogging, some were alone and some were in order. Some were just walking, but there was no one without a purpose. Despite being full of dirt, the base was not dirty. I wondered which ones had ever killed somebody. Who was packing.
There was one large picnic pavilion sharing its immediate vicinity with two members of Fort Sill’s scant tree population.
Evy approached from having greeted Paul; she was wearing a pitying half-frown, half-smirk. “He has poison oak all over his hands.” She covered her mouth to stifle her schadenfreude, lifting only her pinky and ring fingers to intimate, “It’s bad.”
“How did he get poison oak? There are no plants here.” I looked around for shade. Poison plants like shade. Or poison ivy does. I wasn’t sure about poison oak. I wasn’t sure what poison oak looked like. I knew I didn’t get a reaction to poison ivy. I probably didn’t have to worry about poison oak.
Paul approached from the pavilion in his Class A uniform. He hugged Evy, doing his best to hold his hands away from her hair, skin, and clothes. His hands were swollen like inflated surgical gloves; they were scabby, weeping, and covered in chalky pink-white calamine.
“Wow, man, that is disgusting,” Kerry offered. Paul offered a handshake and smiled.
Kerry began to reach out reflexively, then snatched his hand back. “Get away from me with your leper claw!”
Normally, Paul and I didn’t get along; or we did, but equally as often, we were disgusted with each other. He was a little hyperactive and never quite content without one foot over the line, which I found alternately amusing and infuriating. In this context, he was reserved–polite and gracious and tidy.
When it came time to leave, Evy wrapped her arms around Paul so tightly that her hands almost reached her own shoulders. She turned the side of her face to his chest and pressed her eyes shut. Hard. She stood like that for minutes. Long minutes. Paul stood with his angry hands resting behind him on the car he was leaning on.
Incidentally, I have a picture of that, too, but Evy hates it, so I won’t post it. “I look so pathetic,” she always says. Sometimes she laughs. Sometimes she doesn’t.
Paul is looking at the camera, smiling.
We spent the next couple of days tooling around Lawton, attending graduation-related events, spending time with Paul when he was allowed to see us, and, in the evenings, returning to the Hepatitis Hotel. One night we took turns at private realations on the only bed that didn’t threaten laceration.
It was gross. We knew it was gross. Our options were limited, we decided. I could have gone without, myself, but for Kerry’s part, there was apparently some show to put on for Paul.
Kerry and I waited our turn on the second floor concrete walk. I was in my bathing suit, wrapped in a towel. The railing looked out over the pool we’d just been kicked out of. We stood right there outside the door, sans decency to stand anywhere else. It was just us, the black water of the pool, and an outdoor lamp, orange and sick-covered in bugs of every imaginable type. They flew in my mouth and picked at my skin.
I have no memory of what we talked about.
During our visit, Evy understandably refused to sleep on the hypodermic mattress. We had tried the office. There were no other rooms; there were no other mattresses. They did not have a cot. It was so not a grown-up hotel.
We couldn’t let her sleep on the floor; if the mattress had needles, who knows what might be in the carpet? We all had to sleep in one bed. The private relations bed.
I remember walking out of the bathroom at bedtime, pretending to pay no mind to the two of them, gorgeous and unbothered, chatting away next to each other on the shared bed. I remember a feeling of disappearing, like watching them on TV, a voyeur with no idea what might happen and no way to control it. I hated them for a brief, flashing moment, unable to decide whether I should try to remember the picture or forget it immediately.
I shut off the lights and felt my way to bed. Fiancee or no, I slept between them.