[This is an essay draft, and I’m still working through it. Thanks for reading.]
I hurriedly stuffed as many pairs of underwear into my small canvas backpack as I could. I would live in the communal laundry room downstairs and find dropped change and walk to McDonald’s to buy hamburgers and ice cream cones and use the bathroom. It was a solid plan. The room was small and fit only two washers and two dryers. But it was always warm and bathed in a comforting yellow light. A fan mumbled in the background, chunks of dust clinging to its cover.
I hid there regularly during games of hide and seek, checking the traps in the dryers for downy layers of lint when I got bored. No one ever found me there. Someone, a teacher probably, had once told me that you could make paper out of laundry lint, but I couldn’t remember how. I can’t remember, either, why I wanted to run away, and soon I forgot about running away at all, distracted, probably, by my brother David or my sister Sally–both younger–or a television show, or dinner time. A couple of days after formulating my runaway plans, I could not find any clean underwear. I suddenly remembered that I had packed them away in the backpack. Even a week later, I had not remembered what had triggered the desire to run away in the first place.
The Good Nite Inn is a motel off the 10 Freeway in Redlands, California. Redlands is an old citrus industry town in Southern California, about an hour east of L.A. Grocery stores sell nostalgic magnets with pictures of orange crates and smiling young girls in old-timey dresses. Home owners sell bags of oranges and grapefruits harvested from their yards; they place stands next to their mailboxes and trust their neighbors to be honest. There are Victorian and Craftsman-style homes, and mansions in the hills. This is South Redlands, the good side of the tracks, and these tracks are not metaphorical; there are actual railroad tracks separating the good side of town from the bad, the (mostly) white and rich from the poor and Hispanic, who live on the North side. Redlands can be beautiful, especially in the winter. It rains sometimes but mostly everything is green and warm but not too warm. In the summer, however, the heat is visible in waves that hover above the asphalt. You burn yourself on your seatbelt buckle, and the smog gets so thick that you cannot see the mountains that form a bowl around the city, trapping the pollution.
We arrived at the Good Nite Inn at night, finally, after several days of driving across the country from Deerfield, Ohio, all of our belongings packed into garbage bags and stuffed into the chemical tank of my dad’s landscaping truck. Our furniture was strapped to the ledges of the truck, and the legs of one of our chairs had flown off somewhere near the border of California. We had watched as my dad picked his way across the highway to retrieve them. We were all exhausted when we arrived.
The Good Nite Inn was right in the center of Redlands, nowhere near permanent residences. The sign for the Good Nite Inn jutted prominently into the sky, and was visible from the freeway. Lit up white, it featured the name of the motel, and, below that, an orange circle melting into three orange lines, representing the sun melting into the ocean at dusk. It was bordered by a Nissan dealer on one side and a public storage center on the other. It was the nicest motel I had ever stayed in, and I considered myself an expert. It had a pool. It was clean. The gray exterior paint and white trim seemed reassuringly fresh. It was two stories, and a one-story motel is a much sadder enterprise. Our room was on the second floor. At night, we could hear the cars rushing past on the freeway if we left the window open.
My family lived here four months, in one room with two beds and an ice chest filled mostly with melting ice, bologna, mayonnaise, and Coke. A blazing orange package of Roman Meal bread slouched on top of the chest’s white lid. My parents—my dad and my stepmom—were playing it conservative. They didn’t know how long we would be there, or whether or not their insurance company would reimburse them for our stay.
I was born in California and had lived in my dad’s home state of Ohio for a little over two years, and within that time we had moved from one suburb to another. I was getting used to being introduced to the class by the teacher, her hand resting on my shoulder as the students stared blankly at me. I moved my gaze across their faces, wondering who would be my new friends, my new torturers. I was in the 4th grade when we moved back to California—it would be my third school that year.
My father had moved us back to Ohio after three failed marriages, the most recent and devastating being the one to my biological mother, Kathy. He was running away. He wanted to press reset on the video game, to start off where he had come from, in the his idealized version of the suburbs of Ohio, where he had been raised, where kids rode bicycles until sundown, where real bread and pizza were made, where actual Italians could be found. Never mind the fact that his childhood had not, in fact, been happy. He wanted to escape California, where things had not worked out as he had planned, and he never wanted to return. Yet here he was, stuffed into a motel room with his wife and three children.
My dad owned about a ½ acre of land in Calimesa. Sally and I had been born there, delivered by my dad. His name appears on our birth certificates under “Doctor.” It was a crappy piece of land, unincorporated, with no sewage system. My father had hired people to drill down into the ground water and install a well for our water supply. Calimesa itself was not an official town at the time; despite the fact that a major highway ran right down its center, it was on the fringes, and we were on the fringes of that. This ½ acre had little houses on it, and my father rented out those houses, mostly to people whose sole income came from methamphetamine production or welfare. We were barely surviving, especially after the vicious divorce from Kathy, but we didn’t have it as bad as any of the tenants did.
One of these tenants was Roger. He and his daughter Lisa lived in a trailer parked in our backyard. Roger had no job and only one free hand, as the other was constantly attached to a can of Budweiser. He had a magnificent blonde beard that hung down to his often bare chest. Lisa, less than a year my senior, was hungry and unwashed, with a nervous look in her eyes. My dad let Roger live there as a favor to a friend. Despite Roger’s appearance, he was a talented builder and mechanic who helped my dad with various projects in exchange for the parking space. My father grew to rely on him, if not respect him, so when we left for Ohio, he asked Roger to watch over the property. Unfortunately, Roger said yes.
During our short stint in Ohio, Roger intimidated my father’s tenants into moving and then invited his family members onto the property to shoot out windows, loot the houses, and set up a meth lab. Eventually the police discovered the vandalism, but not until the property was destroyed. We were back in California to deal with the consequences.
At the time, I was aware there was a problem, but it wasn’t alarming or even completely real to me. My most urgent concern was accessing the motel pool, the Good Nite Inn’s most important feature. The biggest obstacle to swimming in the pool, however, was the required adult guardian. My dad was busy trying to find work and deal with the property, and my stepmom wasn’t willing to sit out in the sun. We got away with going a few times by ourselves, or trying to go when another family was there, but soon the manager realized that we were not related to any of our rotating families and that no one, in fact, was watching us. They placed a call to our room, and we were no longer able to swim. The pool and television were our only entertainment, so it became vital that we get someone to supervise. Our only option was Ray.
Ray was my much older brother from my dad’s first marriage. I never felt comfortable around Ray. His temperament turned from sullen to hysterical unpredictably. He expected me to prepare food for him. He was hairy and unkempt. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was also heavily using speed. What mattered most to me at the time, however, was that he was over the age of eighteen and willing to sit on a chair as we swam in the pool. I loved the sensation of the water as I slipped through it, the sun burning through my swimsuit. I ignored the awkward figure sulking in the lawn chair under the tree. It was the first time I’d ever had regular access to a pool, and I felt lucky. Ray, who has always wanted a connection to others he has not ever been able to find, seemed as content as he was able to be. In any case, he kept returning.
One day, we found a piece of notebook paper taped to the black metal fence surrounding the pool. The gate was locked. The pool was closed, its pump sadly broken. Over the next several weeks, I watched in dismay as the water turned green and sick with algae. I begged my parents repeatedly to call the managers for an update, which they reluctantly did, and the answer was always the same: they were waiting on a part, it would be there soon.
Soon, there was another unfortunate development. David’s knees suddenly began hurting one day. He cried and grasped at them and rubbed them for relief. Tiny red sores emerged on his skin. He was having trouble walking. We did not have health insurance, so my parents took him to urgent care, and he returned with crutches. As was typical, they didn’t take David’s complaints seriously. “Childhood arthritis,” my dad said, waving his hand dismissively. “He’s fine.” In the ensuing weeks, we watched as David struggled up and down the stairs with his crutches. My parents never even thought to move to a ground-level floor; they insisted that David was exaggerating. What he had was called systemic onset JIA, one of several forms of childhood arthritis. I now know that he should have seen a rheumatologist and gotten physical therapy, that, in fact, the condition is very painful and can be serious. Eventually, David’s arthritis began to improve and his symptoms completely subsided. My parents had been right, this time, but years later, David’s appendix would burst and he would almost die because my parents would insist that he was faking. They were always other things to worry about.
Holidays do not exist in motels. Traditions are for people with homes, not rooms. Our last Independence Day had been incredible—my aunt and uncle owned property on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie. There had been ice cream and fireworks and races in burlap sacks. There were old cars driven by veterans in a community parade. It was like nothing we had ever experienced, an Independence Day from a movie. It became clear to us kids that there would be no celebration this year, no trip to see the fireworks. My parents were pleading exhaustion and the pool was still closed. We decided to take matters into our own hands.
Sally had learned “God Bless America” in sign language at school. David found a small American flag with attached to a tiny plastic pole. I had great intentions of one day being a famous singer who would be discovered and appear on Star Search, and I had the words already memorized. We would show this motel what patriotism looked like. We formed a line, with David in front, Sally in the middle, and me at the end. We began marching in single file, David waving the flag, Sally signing, and me singing. It was nearing dusk, and I remember that last, burst of thick sunshine as we moved through it, disrupted by shadows. We marched and we waved and we signed and we sang all through the halls of the first and second floors. I fully expected our neighbors to cast open their doors, peer from their windows, recognize our love for our country, and, if not join us, nod approvingly. That didn’t happen, of course, but we had fun together. It is one of my fondest memories with my brother and sister.
We would leave the Good Nite Inn in August. My biological mother lived in the nearby town of Lake Elsinore, and she had yet to visit us. My mother struggled with addiction and mental illness, but I didn’t know any of this at the time. She was my mother. I loved her. I didn’t understand why we hadn’t seen her in a year. On one of our last nights at the Good Nite Inn, we cleaned our faces and put on our nice clothes and sat on our bed and watched cartoons. We waited. We peered past the curtains. We waited. We looked at the phone. We waited. Eventually, the sun went down, and it became clear that she wasn’t coming.
Soon after, we finally left the Good Nite Inn and settled back into one of the damaged homes on my father’s property. My parents would start again.
My mother died in a car accident about a month later. I don’t associate her death with the Good Nite Inn. No, the time spent in that motel was an in-between time, one of possibilities and options. My mother was still alive, perpetually on her way. The pool was broken, but the part would be there soon. My father’s property would be restored; it was only a matter of time. On the edges of everything, I knew things were desperate. I knew we were broke, that my brother was an addict, that my mother didn’t know how to love me. But all I wanted to do was go swimming and sing in the hallways, oblivious, to hide away in that warm, yellow laundry room. At the Good Nite Inn, nothing was decided, or permanent. We would be moving soon, but the sign would always be there, visible from the freeway. Its bright orange sun sinks into the ocean, yes, but it is still hanging on.