Settling for a Continental Breakfast
It was the first night of our vacation and we were looking for a hotel on the Kentucky-West Virginia border. My new wife, Karen, sat in the seat beside me prim as a pinned corsage, saying nothing, though she sighed every five miles to let me know that I had better find a place soon.
“I wish you’d just say it,” I said.
The bright lights from the toll plaza made it harder to focus in the static darkness. I waited for my eyes to re-adjust, but after twelve hours on the road I could feel my concentration slipping.
“Whatever you’re mad about.” I flipped the heater switch from the floorboards to the defroster.
“I’m not mad, I’m just upset,” she said. “And yes, there’s a difference. I’m ready for bed and you promised me a relaxing vacation, a way to take my mind off…”
Inside the car, the windshield cleared and it became easier to see, though in the dark it was hard to tell what lay ahead. I switched the heat back toward our feet. Karen’s hand hovered over mine until I returned it to the wheel. With a flick of her wrist, she increased the intensity of the fan. I hated when she did that, came in after me and changed everything thing I had done before.
“If you’re finally ready to talk about it, I’m not going anywhere.”
A car passed us on the left. In the glare, I caught Karen staring at me.
“It’s not fair to use that against me,” she said.
“Silence, my feelings, the damn heater. It’s starting to feel like you’re holding me responsible,” she said. “For all of it.”
Minutes went by barricaded by the drone of the heater.
“I don’t like the way you’re using the miscarriage either. A vacation in February? And what happened to take all the time you need?” Karen said.
“All promises I plan on keeping, but right now it’s taking everything I’ve got just to drive down the road.”
She pulled her pillow from the backseat and wedged it against her window. After she lay her head down, I prayed for her to fall asleep. I felt as though there was nothing more I could do tonight. Three month after the miscarriage, I finally convinced her that a vacation, some time away from the elements of our lives—phone calls from concerned friends and relatives—was just what we needed.
The further we drove, the more it rained and the darker it got. The windshield wipers fanned the water from right to left, but it was quickly replaced by the next splash of water. The outside world took on the appearance of a color collage seen through squinted eyes.
Karen and I weren’t high school sweethearts, nothing close. We met and fell into a hesitant love hinged on our collective desire not to end up alone. I had two children from a previous marriage. She didn’t have any, but wanted them fiercely. There had been other men in her life, even a couple of long-term relationships, but she refused to mention them by name and I couldn’t hide my enjoyment of this fact. I felt secure knowing that I didn’t have any prior intimacies to compete with. I didn’t have to imagine her, in the years to come, on the telephone making desperate calls trying to rekindle a smoldering relationship. I could never be so sure about myself.
* * *
I awoke early, gently roused by the gray hue of cloud-trapped sunlight straining around the edges of the heavy baroque style curtains. I got the idea last night. Why couldn’t this morning be the start of our vacation? It wasn’t the best hotel and we still had another four hours left to drive, but there were still certain amenities we could take advantage of.
In the lobby, I maneuvered around the other travelers, who were all engrossed in the process of gathering a quick breakfast. A man and his wife sipped from steaming cups of coffee, while a mother with hunched shoulders and frosted blond hair peeled the lids from pre-packaged cereals for her three dreary-eyed children. I surveyed what was left of the continental breakfast: a frosting crusted cinnamon roll, shriveled croissants on grease-stained wax paper, and a half-full pot of coffee.
Coming down in the elevator, I had visions of throwing together a quasi-romantic breakfast in bed while Karen continued to sleep. She hated to wake up alone, especially in a strange room. Even now, after three years, she still awoke on the weekends calling out my name, afraid to take that first step out of bed without knowing where I was. We had talked about it once, this fear, and I had said in passing that I thought it had something to do with her father walking out on her family in the middle of the night, when she was seven or eight. Well, that comment was either really right or really wrong, and I’m not so sure there is a difference when it comes to dealing with family history.
The lobby smelled of mildew and over-roasted coffee beans. Scratched table tops in off-white colors were surrounded by pastel colored plastic chairs that stuttered when you moved them and left black marks on the linoleum floor. People maneuvered around one another, politeness bubbling from their lips. At one of the center tables, a murmur arose from two children, followed by a spilt cup of milk, and the thudding of little feet against the thin-worn carpet. The milk ran across the table and fell to the floor in splats.
Outside the rain fell steadily, filling in the chipped and cracked asphalt parking lot. A black and white cat padded around the forming puddles, its head hung low against the falling drops. I stood behind those children, hands at my hips, wondering where the cat would find shelter. The girl’s breath was ragged with excitement, while the boy pounded on the glass. The cat stopped, gave the boy a glance-- its eyes a glassy yellow in the sallow morning light-- before trotting off toward an industrial sized trash bin.
A car rounded the corner, sloshing through the puddles, splashing tiny geysers from its revolving tires. The girl screamed. The boy pounded again on the glass and the rest of the adults in the lobby either shook their heads in disapproval or lurched from their chairs, forgetting their half-eaten breakfasts—soggy cereal and watered-down coffee—to peer out the dirt streaked glass, hoping for some excitement, hoping for a story they could tell.
The car passed. The cat, a glimpse of mottled fur, darted, toward the car, as though it were chasing after it.
To my left, the girl was cooing, her voice high, almost sing-song. The boy shook his fist at the car, his head loping to one side.
The girl’s voice rose above the rest of the gathering crowd. “Mommy, mommy a kitten. Come see. Quick.”
Not a kitten; it was surely a cat, though it couldn’t have weighed more than a few pounds. The fur, wet and mottled, hung off its skin in jagged spikes, as though it was the only part of the cat that was still growing.
“April, really, we’ve got to get going honey.”
“But I want the kitten.” She paused, grabbed at her brother’s hand, intertwined them, then lifted them in the air. “We want it. We want it. We want it.” I expected the boy to pull away from her grip, maybe give her a shove for good measure. He didn’t do any of that. Instead, with the girl’s voice peaking he joined her chorus.
I wished Karen had been there to see it, the whole escapade: those children with their sticky, maple syrup smell, brattish features and shrieking demands. I would have looked at her and said, “Look how close we were.”
I turned toward the woman sopping up the spilled milk. A short squatty woman, with an over-sized winter coat bulging at the pockets, lashed across her chest by a neon bespectacled purse strap. Puffy-eyed from a lack of sleep, she mumbled to herself before looking up at her children. There among all the weights of her life, spilled milk, cold coffee, and kittens left in soaking rain, she managed a smile, one that was a little crooked, with off-kilter front teeth.
Still the girl screamed.
I expected the hotel staff to step in, make an announcement, let everyone know that it was time to calm down, make an off-hand remark about the animal shelter, how the kitten would surely be given a new home in a matter of days.
No one said a word.
After the ruckus over the kitten died down, I went back to the breakfast counter. I gathered the few items I could, frosting laced between my finger tips, coffee sloshing in Styrofoam cups, cereal rattling in its plastic bowls. Not the most romantic gesture, but it was better then going hungry. If I could get it arranged around the room before Karen woke up, I could pull off a charming display.
The trouble started at the elevator, when I couldn’t figure how to push the button without dropping everything. I stared at the button, willing the damn thing to open, hoping that someone would come down and save me the awkwardness of having to go to the front desk, where I could still hear those children arguing about what to do with that cat. I tried to look nonchalant, my back turned to the elevator, faking an interest in a stand of advertisements alerting me to all the wonderful things we could do in the state of West Virginia.
As I waited, I thought how I would tell Karen about the children and the cat left in the rain. It wasn’t so much that she needed to know about it, actually it was more a matter of finding something to talk about. Our fights, which I’ll admit have been occurring more frequently, tended to resolve themselves in a circular fashion. I’d say something to offend her, you know really piss her off, and then she’d stop talking to me. She wouldn’t switch subjects, wouldn’t even tell me she was angry. I mean just stop talking. If I’d said something really bad, it could go on for hours. This was all according to her perspective, though. That’s what you have to understand. Well, when she’s ready to talk to me again, she’d bring it back up, as though it had never left her mind. It was like the entire time she was formulating the perfect response. By that time I’m usually happy enough that she’s speaking to me again that I let her have her say in the matter.
At our door, I managed to set the cups of coffee and orange juice onto the frayed carpet. A concession I had been unwilling to make in the lobby or the elevator, but now it seemed that I didn’t really have a choice. After stabbing the key card into the slot, I crept into the room. Besides our personal items, it looked as though it was ready for the next guests. The beds were made—a habit Karen had confessed to a year ago on our honeymoon—information packets stacked neatly in the center of the table, trash cans emptied, and our bags were repacked, except for a plastic shopping sack we used for our toiletries. She had placed this open-mouthed on top of her soured yellow suitcase. I’d been meaning to buy her, well us really, matching luggage, but I always waited until the last minute and by then I would usually forgot all of my good ideas. When Karen had decided to leave her last boyfriend they had agreed to split everything down the middle. It made her happy to know that the man was living with only half a luggage set. It didn’t make sense to me, but I had done nothing to correct it.
I placed the items onto the table, hoping to create a heart, but the symmetry was off. I couldn’t quite figure out why it wouldn’t work. I tried re-arranging it by placing the plates as the top curves and the cups as the v-shaped bottom, but one side always bulged. I gave up and grouped the items into his and her piles. Orange juice and a cinnamon roll for her, coffee and dry cereal for me. I would have preferred the cinnamon roll, but I could use all the help I could get for the apology I was about to make. I wondered how long she’d been in the shower.
I twisted the door handle, but it didn’t move. Another habit of hers; one I worried about. I asked her once, “What would happen if you fainted or fell and couldn’t move enough to unlock the door?” She replied that she’d rather hurt herself than allow an intruder into the bathroom.
I walked back over to the table and took a sip of the coffee. It was already tepid and left a bad taste in my mouth. I fiddled with the blinds, twisting them opened and closed. The wind had picked up and the rain fell in slanted torrents. Below, cars with dull headlights and flashing brake lights entered and left the hotel parking lot. Between the gap of a Shell station and a McDonald’s the interstate stretched across the land like a coiled jump rope left in a sandbox. Even from there I could see a washed-out mirage of brake lights as car after car sluiced through puddles to a bumper-to-bumper standstill. The thought of joining that melee made me wonder if maybe this wasn’t something we could run away from.
I heard the metallic pop of the lock on the bathroom door release, wet foot steps pad against the floor, a sigh, and the smell of tropical fruit mixed with years of mildew fill the room before I turned around.
She sat on the bed, towel wrapped loosely from her breasts to her hips, one leg crossed over the other at the knee. She dug around in the plastic bag until she brought out a tube of lotion. She opened the top with a flick of her tube, squeezed a glob into her palm and began rubbing it into the calf of her upturned leg. She did this unconsciously as though she was the only one in the room. As if none of this would turn me on, as if we hadn’t been in a period of drought for the last month.
My first impulse was to sit down beside her, run the back of my hand against her cheek in order to move things toward something more romantic. But she was still mad about last night, I could tell from the way she was holding her body, adopting a rigidness in her spine, shoulders, and lips. She didn’t give me more than a glance either, nothing more than flick of her eyes to make sure I was paying attention to her. So I did the only thing I could, I told her about the breakfast and when that didn’t work I told her about the cat.
“So you just left it there, out in the rain?”
“What was I supposed to do?”
“Just the thought of that defenseless thing out there all alone. How old do you think it is? God, was it a baby? You’d tell me if it was a baby right?”
“It was just a cat,” I said, knowing there was exasperation to the tone of my voice and yet not caring either.
“It could have been a kitten. Somebody should do something and since you won’t I guess I will.”
“Let’s not get too excited now,” I said.
At first, she calmly lifted the bag of toiletries, careful not to spill any of the contents and placed it on top of the bed. That’s as far as her patience went though, because she ripped the zipper down the curve of the suitcase, flung the lid open and began digging through the folded clothes for a pair of underwear, sweatpants, and beer-colored tank-top. She dressed in a mad rush. When she was finished, she looked disheveled, tank-tops straps twisted, hanging tight against her shoulders, hair wet and stringy hung in front of her eyes.
“Look, if I can’t have a baby then--” She picked up the orange juice, sniffed it and set it down again on the table.
“What? You want a cat? We can have a child. We can’t let one--”
I hated when she interrupted me. Another habit, one she did constantly as though she was trying too hard to finish my sentences.
“That’s not what I was going to say. I was going to say 'setback.'”
“Honestly, I don’t think I can allow another setback. Not at my age.”
I reached for her wrist, but she was already moving toward the door. I let her go. I was sure that the cat by now would be gone, probably hiding somewhere dry. What did I care if she wanted to get soaked, wanted to get sick.
I took her clothes, the ones she had rifled through and folded them neatly. I re-zipped the suitcase and placed it and the toiletry bag onto the floor. I glanced at the table, but I was no longer interested in the food or coffee. I lay down on the bed and tried to read a paperback, a mystery I’d been trying to finish for months. I read a couple of sentences, but the words remained static. My thoughts were instead filled of images of Karen traipsing around in the rain, half-dressed, all because I told her that stupid story about the cat. I walked over to the window and glanced down at the parking lot below. I waited several minutes, before I saw her come stomping out of the lobby door and head straight for the dumpster. No one followed her out, no staff or manager offering her an umbrella. She was alone and I’d never felt closer to her. I grabbed our jackets and rushed out of the room.
By the time I made it outside, her hair was a tangled mass and the tank-top was soaked. The cloth clung tightly to her body, exposing her bra and the soft curve of her stomach. The rain made my ears cold and my shirt started to sag with its weight. I held the jackets in my hand. Rain dripped down our faces and ran in torrents at our feet filling crack after crack in the divoted pavement. I never felt more out of control in my life.
“Elliot, I want that kitten. Please, don’t ask me why,” she said.
I draped the jacket over her shoulders. I imagined those people back in the lobby looking out at us, wondering about our ages, thinking we should know better. I wondered, why in that moment, we couldn’t have been a couple of teenagers too self-assured in one another to come to our senses.