Pink, purple and orange streaks burst across the sky. My hands gripped the steering wheel so tight I feared my fingers might pop off. I didn’t dare look in the rear view. What was behind me wasn’t anything worth looking back on. There was nothing fond about those memories. Nothing I wanted to take with me. Everything faded into a bleak darkness that I wished would swallow me whole.
Desperate for a distraction, I turned the radio on. Static from the preprogrammed station greeted me. The signal likely went out a few hundred miles ago. I wasn’t sure how far I’d driven, but I was certain it wasn’t far enough. I could drive all night and all day without stopping and it still wouldn’t be far enough.
I blinked. My eyes heavy from staring down an open road for hours. I didn’t want to stop, but I needed to. My eyes caught the glow of a small town on the next exit.
The neon lights sparked on and off, illuminating the vacancy sign. According to the last city limit sign I’d passed, I was just passed Cape Girardeau, Missouri. My mother had always insisted I not travel alone, but if I did, always pick a brightly lit exit with at least one franchised fast food restaurant with a name and a logo I recognized. According to her, McDonald’s and Burger King made an exit or town legitimate and less likely to attract serial killers or rapists.
This exit had neither of those. The motel I chose preferred cash and didn’t offer HBO. There wasn’t a fast food chain in sight. If she weren’t already disowning me, this moment would have solidified her decision.
“No daughter of mine,” she’d say, scolding and judging. Her mouth soured into a frown.
My only requirement was that the exit had a motel or hotel with an empty bed. This exit met that. I wasn’t staying long. Eight hours max. Six to sleep and a nice, long, hot shower.
The clerk handed me a key. An actual key; not a keycard. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d been in a hotel with a metal key attached to a hard plastic key tag. Heavy and foreign in my hands, I slipped it into the keyhole and pushed the door open.
Stale cigarette smoke and old, lingering recirculated air caught my nose, I fought back the sneeze, not wanting to inhale anymore than I already had to. Flicking on the light revealed orange and mustard yellow decor dating back to well before my birth. The comforter on the bed looked as itchy as I was sure it felt. The burgundy and white floral pattern did nothing for the room.
As long as it’s free of bed bugs. I thought, adding another item to my list of requirements. It only had two and for now, that seemed like plenty.
I’d been on the road for eight hours now. Having stopped no less than four times to pee, eat or get gas. Every two hours. That’s it. I timed it as perfectly as I could with little planning.
My eyes blurred from exhaustion. The tears I’d shed hours ago had long since dried, but looking in the mirror the evidence remained. My brown eyes were highlighted by red veins and outlined with dark circles and streaked mascara.
I raked my fingers through my hair, pulling out tangles and loose strands. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen my natural hair color, but the familiar deep auburn shade I spent hundreds on every month dulled in the fluorescent lights. The lights did little to flatter the rest of me. My pale skin was nearly translucent under them.
In my haste, I hadn’t even packed a toothbrush, much less a hairbrush. I splashed cold water from the rusted tap on my face, attempting to wash away what makeup remained. Unwrapping the soap on the counter, I tried not to think about the feature story I’d seen on how hotels reuse soaps.
Peeling off my tank top, I tossed it into the room, careful to make sure it landed on the chair. The shower handle was just as rusted as the faucet in the sink. A burst of maroon water flowed out before turning clear. I waited another minute before pulled the lever for the shower. My jeans landed next to my tank top, followed by my bra and underwear.
The water reached an acceptable temperature, but not nearly as hot as I’d have preferred. I threw a towel on the floor to have something soft to step on when I finished and then stepped into the lukewarm stream of water.
The hotel shampoo gave me less confidence about its freshness status, but at this point my standards had already been lowered. It lathered and rinsed, what more could I ask for? I squirted a generous amount of conditioner into my hands and worked it through my hair. At home, my conditioner was a deep treatment masque meant for less frequent use. Out of habit, I let the cheap excuse for a conditioner soak and sit on my hair while I scrubbed the rest of my body with the bar soap and Brillo pad of a washcloth.
Nothing in this motel would pass for soft or luxurious. I’m not spoiled, per say, but my job paid for four and five star hotels when I traveled.
Nope. Do not think about work. Do not dwell on the past, Vic, it’s not worth it. I scolded myself.
I rinsed my hair and pulled open the shower curtain. It wasn’t the long, refreshing shower I’d spent the last 400 miles dreaming about, but it would suffice. The white towel that I grabbed was at least very white and very clean, but it was rough and scratchy. I dried quickly and pulled the one pair of clean underwear I’d packed in my backpack and slipped them on. In addition to the underwear, I also grabbed a change of clothes and a t-shirt. I slipped on the t-shirt and laid out the clothes for tomorrow.
My hair would have to air dry, I decided. Without tools and product, it wasn’t worth attempting to use the motel’s hairdryer. Rubbing the towel over my head, I tried to tousle it dry. It would eventually settle into a mess of untamed curls.
I sat on the bed and pulled out my phone.
No missed calls or texts, but my emails and calendar notifications were too many to count. I deleted them all before going into my settings and disconnecting my work email. As tempting as it was to read the messages, I knew nothing good would come up it.
Up next was social media. I logged into my Facebook app and disabled my account without even checking the notifications. Then did the same on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Tomorrow, I’d find an AT&T store to trade in my phone and change my number. I assumed I had at least another twelve hours before anyone noticed my absence.
If they noticed.
Lying in the dark in an unfamiliar bed in a town I’d never been to brought a sense of peace. This was what I’d been working towards. A fresh start. A clean slate. No obligations. No chains. Nothing to remind me of the life I’d never wanted. Every mistake erased. A million secrets to keep.
Everything is alright. I whisper into the darkness of the car. I am safe.
I wasn’t running, I reassured myself. This wasn’t some lame attempt to grab his attention or make him miss me. This was for me. I needed this.
I’m not running away from the past. I’m chasing the future. My future.