No Tell Motel

Lisa Douglass

That is how you get old and I’m not going to let that happen to you, she said. Her purse fell open to two prescription bottles that read DO NOT OPERATE HEAVY MACHINERY, and MAY CAUSE DROWSINESS, our version of heaven with safety caps and she hiked up her skirt in the promise of something glorious later, at the hotel or in the car. The neon sign flashed green for go; my eyes fell on her wedding ring and then I knocked back two horse pills without water. If we were smarter, we wouldn’t do what people do when they get old, she said. We’d be like us and get stoned and laid before turning to dust; we’d hitchhike up the coast and make temporary families out of the people we meet.  Then one day we’d disappear and leave a mark so deep that they’ll always remember we were there.  That is us; not that other thing. So, shut up about court, even if we win, it won’t be the same fun we had breaking into that house.

I said, maybe we should go back, but she wasn’t listening, and I said what if we lose, then there’s jail.

Don’t worry, jail is only for felonies, we didn’t even have a gun.

I knew jail was also for amounts, but I didn’t say anything.

We got the key and went inside. She lit a candle to kill the motel smell and put on something flimsy. She opened champagne and it was warm, but I didn’t care. She looked at me and told me I was the one. I believed her more than I believed my own mother, that she was taking me somewhere; that I was her big man. We didn’t fuck, she talked about it though, but we never did it. We just drank and danced and I told her the secret that I never told anyone about my best friend and his accident and how I was secretly happy when I found out and how I thought that was something I couldn’t come back from. She said, I know all about that, when I was twelve I gave my dad a backrub and he wanted to tell me how wonderful I was, how beautiful and pure and how I would have a happier life than my sister and how much he loved me and I put up my hand and told him to stop. I didn’t want to be above my sister anymore and I still feel sick that I didn’t let my dad tell me he loved me that day, it was the best he had. I carry that around like a little noose waiting for its chance.

I didn’t see how it was the same, but in another way I did, so I kept quiet and smiled and played with her necklace. She hit my hand away and then got me into a wrestle hold and we kissed slow and then she jumped up and found the remote control.  We watched King of Queens because it was the only working channel. She did a dance that was half retarded and half stripper. I liked it; it reminded me that we were still kids even though we shouldn’t be.

You make me feel so weird, like I’m falling, I said.  Yeah, I know, she said.

I knew I was a fool for shooting off my mouth, now I was lumped in with the others, by even thinking it and that’s what I hated the most.


Checkout was twelve, but she had me in the car by ten, the water in the room had a smell to it.  Like rust, she said or maybe like sulfur, anyway it’s bad for us.  I thought we were going to Moscow to find your sister, I said, but she didn’t hear me or if she did she kept it to herself. She was wearing the one skirt she seemed to always wear and her makeup looked nice, but she had those shoes, the ones with the messed up heels.  They made me want to save her – that torn up part at the bottom, but she didn’t need saving just new shoes. The ride from Houston was long; after about three hours I wanted to stop. She was playing TheRamones as loud as she could stand and I was going deaf but pretended it didn’t even hurt. Can’t we stop for coffee, I said, but she reminded me there was no money for coffee only for tickets.

So we are going to Moscow, I asked? Dumbshit, she said, that was always the plan. At eleven-thirty she pulled over and we had sex in the car; it was sweltering outside and we did it like it was routine in one of the truck stops only this was our first time. We stuck to the seats, like when I was a kid and wore shorts in my mom’s car. I didn’t think it changed us, not until later, that’s when I realized, when we did it again at five-thirty and then at eight and then all night long, not like it was routine anymore, but like it was necessary, like air. We checked into a Ramada near Seal Beach and fell asleep in each other’s arms. In the middle of the night I told her I loved her. She was dead asleep, but it helped to say it. In a day we were going to look for her sister in Moscow and I was happier than I had been in years, happy to be with someone who had a goal, happy to be with her, my unknowable stranger. The one I called Star. The one who called me Dumbshit.

In the morning, we rented bikes and rode around Belmont Shore and Seal Beach. We need some fresh air, she said, it’s going to be a long time until we see a beach after Moscow. I thought we were only going for two weeks. Well, yeah, if we find her easily, it’s going to be two weeks, but if we need more we’ll stay longer, right? she said. Sure, I guess so. It was great being outdoors, but I had a sinking feeling and I wasn’t sure why. All day long I watched her be kind to other people, but she wasn’t like that with me, she told me I was special and got to see her true self. I wished she was just cool to me, but she said that would be boring. Fucking bitch.

On the plane, Star ordered us Bloody Marys. It’s the best drink for planes because of the salt content, she said, salt keeps you from being dehydrated. After one drink, she was warm and affectionate again; if I could just keep her loaded, everything would be fine. I have to warn you about my sister, she is very beautiful, she said. Not prettier than you, I said, how could she be? I knew you wouldn’t believe me, but you wait and see. She started looking through that magazine with all the gadgets, asking me about this one and that one, and we didn’t talk about her sister for the rest of the night.

Star slept like the dead, even on a plane, never changing positions. I never really sleep, not all the way.  I examined her broken nose, I wasn’t allowed to look at it when she was awake, but to tell the truth, it was my favorite part. She had broken it in an accident at the Formosa, doing backbends off the barstools with her friend.  She was too scared to go to the emergency room; she went home and took some Vicodin and she woke up with a hangover and two black eyes. I told Barney’s Beanery I couldn’t come to work that day, she said, I broke my nose, and I look just like Ellen Barkin, and my boss said, oh I love her, see you at six.

Some people are good and no one ever notices, that might happen to me, she said in the terminal. But, what is it you do? I asked her. I don’t do anything, she said, that’s the point; my life will go unrecognized. I didn’t see what she was getting at, but at the moment I didn’t care, we made our way to baggage claim and somewhere in this city was her beautiful sister and I couldn’t wait to see what she was like.


Moscow, Idaho was not what I expected, true nothing was going on here, but it held the mystery of a small town, one where you could get lost forever and no one would come looking and no one would notice your vanishing. I want to live here, I said.  It is nice, but you’d die of boredom, there’s nothing to do, Star said.  I’ll find something, I said and looked out the window. We passed brick buildings and trees and it was raining even though it was still summer, the street made that sound as we drove; rubber and rain and asphalt, wooshing like a lullaby. I saw a couple and imagined they were childhood sweethearts who never got a taste for the aloneness the rest of the world knows all about.

We made our way to the hotel near where she heard her sister was staying; The Palouse Inn.  I’m never leaving this place, I said. This reminds me of that time I stayed in a motel when I was a little girl, Star said. I had a cricket in my crib and I kept chirping at it, and it kept my parents up all night.

You remember being in the crib? I said, that seems impossible; I don’t remember anything before I was eight.

How awful, its almost like you didn’t exist, you lost seven whole years, doesn’t that make you sad?

I couldn’t say that it did; the stuff I remembered wasn’t all that great, so maybe what I missed was all the great stuff, but I was cursed with only remembering misery. I’m a misery trap, I said, but she was busy flirting with the receptionist, trying to get a better rate. She did it too, she was wearing that push up bra and a smile with a promise behind it, and she got a room for ten bucks cheaper and a later checkout.

We put our stuff in the room and she told me not to worry, everything was fine; she had a gun, which made me feel worse, like someone might die. We were in a town where all our sins could get washed away, and she didn’t notice.

So, who’s this guy she’s with, I said, is he some kind of criminal?  Yeah, she said, he was a dealer, but he graduated to pimping. Is your sister a prostitute? I said. Hell, no, Dumbshit why would you say that, that really pisses me off, she said. For the obvious reasons, I said, she’s with him right? Not exactly with him, she tried to leave and he kept her there, like kidnapping, she said. I was getting the picture, this whole set up wasn’t exactly safe, and I didn’t care. I wanted to do whatever this was and pretend is was happiness.

The room was quiet, Star was humming something like a nursery rhyme; she sat on the edge of the bed and painted her toes blue with sparkles. She looked like she was five years old in some ways and tried to cover it up with eyeliner usually, but not now, it was the first time I’d seen her without it, and I caught myself staring. I’m going for coffee, I said, I won’t be gone long. She didn’t look up and didn’t say goodbye, but I left anyway.

I walked to a coffee shop down the street. I saw a couple; the girl was so glamorous and so out of place in such a small town, that I thought she could only be Star’s sister. There wasn’t anything Idaho about her, she had BIG CITY written all over her. I ordered the coffee and tried not to stare.

While I was paying, I said to the cashier, do you know that couple in the corner? They aren’t regulars, she said. He looks familiar, I said, like someone I knew once. That happens to me too, she said, sometimes I still think I see my algebra teacher; it’s the strangest thing.

I went outside and planted myself on the curb. The girl came out first and I made eye contact as if to say, I’m here to help, and she looked back as if to say, don’t be stupid. I sat there until the guy came out and watched them get into a big blue Cadillac. I was in a mood, but I couldn’t tell you what it was, except that Star was right, her sister was beautiful and this might end badly, but I couldn’t wait for that to happen.

On the way back to the hotel, I had a fantasy about the sister. We were married. I imagined dressing her in white cotton sundresses and building her a house, yellow with white trim. There was food in the dream, but it sat there uneaten. Just like it does when you’re in love. And she would live there with me and we would decorate it the way she liked, with girly things or modern things or anything she ever wanted and we would be happy for the rest of our lives not because of the rose garden, but because of that wounded look in her eye. It was that look that I remembered as I walked into our room. And there it was, on Star, the same exact look and I knew I was in trouble for real.

Star took the coffee and drank it, eyeing me up and down. So, how was it, she said, the town, did you get a good look?  Not really, but I’m positive I saw your sister at the diner, I said, she was with a guy. Star looked like she had seen a ghost.  What else, she said, what are you leaving out? Nothing, that’s it, I said.

I knew it, you fell for her in two seconds flat, she said, I told you: you’re ridiculous.

Shut up, I said, she wasn’t what I expected.

Yeah, Dumbshit, she never is.

So, is it going to be like this from now on, she said, with you thinking about my sister?

Do you have to do this now, I said, shouldn’t we help her?

But she wasn’t listening to me, instead she said, did you see my husband?

How would I see him, I said, and then realized it. Yeah, I told you he left, but I didn’t tell you it was for her, pretty funny, huh? I told her it wasn’t funny, not funny at all and I gave a fake smile so she wouldn’t think I felt sorry for her.

You pity me now, she said, I can tell.

She was right, but I told her she was crazy.

She got off the bed and pretended to look for things, like shoes or her skirt, but really she was just trying not to cry. The bangles on her arm were dangling noisily as she rummaged around, giving the impression that something was happening, when nothing really was. It was hard to watch, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Listen, I don’t even know what I want anymore, I just wanted to find them, she said, so now we did, and we can leave.

But I wasn’t going anywhere. I got next to her on the bed and told her so. Why don’t we stay here, I said, and make a life for ourselves? She was shivering and crawled under the sheets and began to whimper. She gets everything she ever wants, she said, and I never do.

I knew I was a part of that, a something she doesn’t want but only settles for and it made me sick in my heart.

We looked at each other, and she knew what I knew.

The sister was now like a ghost between us. At first I thought it would be the end, but it was more like another thing bringing us closer.  Her sister didn’t need saving; we needed saving.

Here we were like it was nothing, in this hotel room with the fake plants and the same bedspread that others had made it on, acting like it was normal. These hotels aren’t for the normal though. Probably someone died here, someone like Star or someone like me, we weren’t so special, so why pretend? I was done pretending. I picked up her red pumps. Wear these, will ya? I said.  She said something back, like always, a put down or a come on, I can’t even remember what it was exactly, but I fell for it and I knew she was still the one, but she didn’t know yet.  She almost asked me why, but she knew why so instead she took the pumps out of my hands and put them on. I was leaning against the door watching her. I could tell she thought her sister killed us and in that moment, she gave up and when she did that, I looked into her eyes and said it, I love you.

She acted like I hadn’t said it and that was fine by me.

Her white t-shirt was covered in mascara and her arms were getting too skinny again. I told her she should eat something, but she told me skinny was better. Yeah, it’s better, but don’t go too far, I said, I need you around.

Have any more of those pills? she said, and reached straight into the front pocket of my jeans. I let her dig around until she found them, just a few blue ones mixed in with the lint. Want one? she said, and then put one in my mouth and two in hers and we fell back onto the bed. We held hands and stared at the ceiling. I’m sorry about your husband, I said. Let’s not mention it anymore, she said, it just makes me cry.

Then she jumped up and put the ghetto blaster on, The Pixies, “Hey.” She did a little dance, just like she did before and I knew Star and I were a long way from over.


When I woke, Star’s gears were already turning.  It’s not the first time a husband has left a wife for a sister you know, she said.  She wore high-top Doc Martens and sat on the floor with her legs straddling the gun and her makeup scattered all over.  I thought we were leaving, I said, didn’t you say we got what you wanted.  You want to leave, she said, then go ahead, I can handle this on my own.  The gun was right there and I didn’t know how far she would go, so I just stared at her.  What? You want to say something about something, she said, I’m sure you would like to say something, but you really can’t understand how this is, so you better just can it.  I didn’t like the sound of that, but what did I know, Star was right, this was something I hadn’t exactly been through.  I told her I’d been through something similar, with Calla, the one from Korea, the one I would’ve done anything for, I left that part out though, just keeping it to the sickness of walking in on her and my best friend.  I hated how I did that, gave up my secrets just so Star wouldn’t think I was an asshole. Walking in on your girlfriend and your best friend is similar, she said, I guess you do kind of know what I mean, don’t you, Dumbshit?

The part I hated was this same thing that made me stay, the mean part, and I bet that her sister wasn’t half as mean and that was going to be the deal-breaker. My fantasy was just that, some little thing to keep me safe from whatever this was. Star got up and went to the closet, she wore cutoff shorts and a favorite t-shirt; it belonged to her mother, it was pale yellow with a rainbow decal on the front.

I’m going on that diet again, the one with the maple syrup and the cayenne pepper and the lemon juice, she said, you want to do that with me, I can’t have you getting a gut.  I told her I would and she told me we’d have to use straws because she didn’t want us fucking up our teeth. She put a long black trench coat over her shorts.

I got dressed and we went down to Main Street, looking for something to do.  What the hell do people do here, she said, eat and sleep I’m guessing.  Let’s go get breakfast, we’ll get waffles, she said, our last hurrah before the starving.  We walked down the block to a line of people outside a restaurant called “The Breakfast Club.” Perfect, we’ll go here! Star said.

The locals stared at Star because she was pretty and didn’t look like she fit in. Her clothes were different than theirs and so was her spirit. Star kept her shades on when we got seated.  She ordered eggs and bacon and a waffle, but didn’t eat much of it. Instead she kept showing me the gun in her purse, lighting up like a child. We can pretend I’ve kidnapped you, she said, like you’re my captive.   I can take you out back and make you do whatever I want.  How was that different than now, I wondered.

Chimes. The door opened. I saw the girl that I had seen the other day.  Star saw her too.  That’s one hot tomato, don’t you think so, she said?  The girl looked over but didn’t say anything. You interested? She might be fun, Star said.  I looked at the girl and then back at Star and then back at the girl.  What? You can talk to her, I won’t mind, she said, and then went back to her milkshake.  That’s your sister? I said, more asking than telling.  Come on, I said my sister is beautiful, that girl is only pretty.  Then she looked at the guy standing with her. And you seriously thought I would be married to that kind of guy? RIDICULOUS. He looks like I could break him in half.  Oh, man, you are in for a surprise, she said.

Waitress, can you please come over here a minute?  The waitress looked annoyed.  I’m sorry to address you like that; I didn’t catch your name. I’m Maggie, she said.  Pleasure meeting you Maggie, now me and my friend have a bet going, can you help us sort it out?  Depends, Maggie said.  Well, my date here thinks I could have been married to that gentleman over there and I’m not saying anything bad about him or anything, but does he look like my type?  Um, I don’t want to get in the middle, Maggie said.  Come on, its just for fun.  Maggie looked at me and I smiled “go ahead.”  Now take a good look, genius can’t be rushed, can it, Star said?  She kicked me playfully under the table and gave Maggie a smile to say, I might swing your way if you were younger or smarter.  Maggie took her time. He doesn’t look like your type, she finally said.

Well, thank you Maggie, my friend here has won the bet, Star said in the most sincere tone.  Now, for his winnings, I told him I’d ask you if you have any whiskey stashed somewhere.  Maggie looked at me and then at Star.  I’ll see what I can do and she disappeared.  Star played footsie with my crotch.  Stop it, I said.  Why, you have a headache or something? Star said. I didn’t have a headache exactly, but my head felt like a balloon.

I need to lie down, I told her and tried to stand up.  My legs felt wobbly like I’d been drugged. Not so fast, Maggie’s bringing us booze, remember? I didn’t, but said I did, and I lay back in the booth until Maggie reappeared. Maggie brought whiskey in two mugs and put coffee on top.  Can’t lie down in the booth, but this should cheer you up, Maggie said.  I sat up and apologized and began drinking.  Instantly, it made me feel like a child, like when my Dad taught me to ride a bike. I was doing pretty well with the training wheels, but he told me training wheels were for sissies, so I took them off.  I fell and broke my arm the second day and to punish me he wouldn’t take me to a hospital.  It’s not even broken; so quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.  He made me go to school with my broken arm for a week before I went to the nurse and told.  When they got me to the hospital they had to break my arm again, because it had set crooked, like a frog, that’s what Jimmy Madison called me when he saw it, Froggy.

I looked up and Star was smiling down on me.  Hey, there, where’d you go?  Just to whiskey heaven, I said, where the pain becomes lovely like it should have been to begin with.  Star liked that and sat down next to me.  Star kissed my cheek in a manner more comforting than anyone ever has and she put her fingers through mine and we sat there for a full hour without speaking. I liked it and thought maybe Star’s brutality would only exist in her reaction to others from now on and never again towards me, so that we could be like this forever. In my mind I knew this was just fantasy, but in my heart it was as real as the sun.


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