The blinds are, as standard, set at that particular angle. They hide you but show what’s going on outside in ribbons. What’s going on outside is every so often a car comes into the lot and every so often a car comes out. Now a white Estate comes in and a guy gets out of the car and looks around the site and locks up his car. He looks at himself in the car window. Because the motel is on a highway and the land is flat and undeveloped, you can see when the sun is about to set. Almost hour by hour you know the time by how glorious the road and the forecourt are.
I imagine I’ll hear things from next door, but even when I strain, I can’t hear anything, just the hum of my own refrigerator and the highway. I don’t know how many people make noise when they’re having sex. I think about that. It’s not just pleasure. After the sun sets, rush hour ends and the highway is a steady one, two cars, then nothing, three four five, then nothing.
The small Indian woman who owns the motel comes out of the office and crosses the forecourt to a laundry room. She’s wearing slippers and, looking out once around the parking lot, disappears quickly inside the shade of the room. She doesn’t speak English but her son does, so he deals with the customers. The two pass each other on the forecourt occasionally, going about their business between the office and the rooms. If there’s something to say, they say it, but if not, they pass each other in silence.
It gets dark after a few hours on the bed, tossing and turning, watching the parking lot, counting out my food, measuring the portions I’ll have for tomorrow’s meals, looking at the map. The idea was to try to write with fewer distractions than in the city. Instead I give in and get my pajamas from my bag and undress behind the bed, looking through the ribbons between the blinds to see if anyone is there.
In the dark, it’s not really dark. I pull the stiff sheets from around the bed and get under them. There are still cars coming in and out of the lot every few hours. I can’t sleep. I keep thinking someone is knocking on the window and on the door. The fan is on low cold fan, and makes a nice, slow sound.
“You don’t want to go there,” the off-duty cab driver had said. “It’s cheap, but it’s not worth it.”
“What I’ll say is that I would sleep much better if I knew my niece was at the Good Value down the highway than if she was at The Rest Inn.”
In the morning, the walls of The Rest Inn Motel are yellow and shiny as butter. The highway is suddenly loud at rush hour and then goes quiet again. The small woman and her son are standing in the doorway of the office, talking. She has a broom in her hand and brushes some dirt from the gutter running along the wall, to show her son what she means. The parking lot is mostly empty so that the front of The Rest Inn looks almost like the front of a regular home. I doze in the bed; the sheets are still stiff. The sun enters in ribbons. I fall back asleep. The day stretches out in front of me.
It’s something to have nowhere to be. In my pajamas, I go to the bathroom and check what I look like in the mirror. I comb through my hair with my fingers and put on my shower slippers. I’m of a mind to go outside and stand on the threshold, since I’ve paid for it. So I go to the front door and walk out as if I’m living in a house, as if I’m going onto my own porch to let the cat in. The light comes in suddenly, the room is quarried—I can see everything inside, the stiff sheets, the refrigerator, the carpet and the fire alarm on the ceiling. There is a moment of silence on the forecourt and the highway. I step outside onto the little sidewalk and feel the heat of the midday through my pajamas. But then a black Range Rover turns off the slip road into the lot, and I look up to the sky quickly and turn inside, closing the front door behind me.
In the shade, I resolve to explore the neighborhood.
I take out my map. Neighborhood seems a strange word. The Rest Inn Motel does have neighbors—an auto repair store and a car dealership are among the highway-facing properties of the same service slip road, before it and the highway become more hostile and fade loudly towards the coast. I look at the map and think of an impossible walk following the highway to its natural conclusion, along the shoulder where there’s no sidewalk and the trees overhang and force you into the path of the cars.
It’s four in the afternoon before I am comfortable enough with my route, and have packed my bag with some cheese and a bottle of water, and have washed my hair. Taking my key, I shut up the room and walk with purpose, as I have planned to do, across the busy forecourt, past the woman standing in the shade of the office, onto the slip road, before turning right and starting off along the highway. The cars are a steady one two three four, and as I keep walking the frequency gets higher and rush hour begins.
From the map, I know that directly under the highway is an area of green parkland, with two large ponds and a bridle path running the length of it. To get there, you have to duck under the highway. There are trails downhill behind the shoulder or, if you turn off a short way down the highway, there’s a riding school whose paddocks will also lead you downhill beneath the road. When I go through the riding school, a group of girls on break are sitting on a picnic bench, waiting for a lesson, dressed in jodhpurs and t-shirts. I ask the tallest where I can find the bridle path to the pond. They all point in the wooded direction behind the horses.On the map, the park is a long green shape, tapering to trails at either end. When I get to the wooded entrance, the sound of the highway dims, replaced by the sound of the trees, of wildlife both winged and footed, and past that, the sound of almost still water. I follow the bridle path through the trees and see through, eventually, to the dark, sparkling source. It is a small lake. Ducks and swans are sailing from one bank to another. I set up on a bench by the water’s edge and take off my shoes and let my feet catch the sun. I eat my little lunch.
The water close by is in shadow; it is a dark photograph. The swans draw on the water with their beaks, biting imperceptibly, white trails on the surface, every so often finding a long wet life and swallowing it whole.
But I am anxious to get back before it starts to get dark. I pack up and follow my footsteps back to the motel. When I turn in from the slip road, I see the woman finishing a load of laundry. As I cross to my room, slipping my key out from my pocket, she smiles at me and I smile back.
Inside I look at the dinner I had planned. I have a tin of beans and no tin opener. I try my little scissors, tweezers, a pencil. Nothing works, so I lock up the room and go across the forecourt to the office, whose door has been left open in the evening heat. The office is a meter square or so of standing room and a glass window with a desk behind it. There’s a buzzer to press for assistance. I press it and wait. A quiet voice says something. A minute or two later, the little Indian woman appears behind the glass window and smiles, and I ask if she has a tin opener. She doesn’t understand so I mime a tin opener. We laugh, and she disappears again. Her son comes in instead, smiling like his mother, and slides a tin opener under the bank slot of the window.
After I eat my dinner, sitting on the stiff sheets of the bed, I go back across the forecourt in my bare feet and try to hand the tin opener back through the bank slot.
“Do you have more cans? Keep it! Keep it if you need it,” says the son, so I do.
At night, cars come in and out of the lot. I lie in bed and watch through the blinds.
The first ever motel was the Milestone Mo-Tel in San Luis Obispo in California. It was 1925, one of the first years there were cars everywhere.
The first motel looked like The Rest Inn with its Spanish white walls and simple square windows and tiles on the roof.
There was a little chapel-shaped building on the end of the terrace of apartments, which was a bell tower.
The fan is on low cold fan. The lights in the bathroom are on and come out onto the carpet and into the daytime shade of the bedroom like a television. The bathroom is cool and smells like mint. When I’m inside it with the door closed, I feel that I am in a cell in the motel room, and that this cell is the heart of America.
With the borrowed tin opener, I open my can of macaroni and eat it for lunch. Then I go to the park again, as if to a job, along the roaring highway, past the girls at the riding school, past the benches along the lake’s edge. This time I keep going past the lake, along the bridal path, through its dark and quiet stretches, till I can’t see the water between the trees when I look back. The first thing that appears from the woods is the quiet, low-lying lot of an elementary school, two boulders marking the end of the bridal path, and the gull-like birds swooping over the orange roofs.
Babylon is a small town, bright with seaside light. The main streets curl around the railway station and, further out, the playing fields of the elementary school and a high school. The basketball and tennis courts are deserted except for some kids sitting on bikes behind the netting of the basketball court as if they’re watching a game.
I walk all the way to the train station and up the stairs to the platform. The trains sit in the downbelow station tracks, silver backs all together, still, but not really still, like alligators who are sunbathing. The departure board flickers with names of final stops like Montauk and the main ones in Manhattan. The buses line up outside the station for trips to Robert Moses Beach. Any of these places are places I could go. But instead I turn away from the platform. I head back to The Rest Inn, having paid for another night. I look forward to seeing the woman and her son, as if they’ve been waiting up for me, in the office, the light making a rectangle across the forecourt, mosquitoes dancing in its beam.