Reprinted with permission from Woodhall Press from Fast Funny Women edited by Gina Barreca , 2021.
Here’s the premise: What if, when we’re young, we could look into our future and see only the most ridiculous, awkward, and pitiful moments awaiting us? What would we think about ourselves then? How would our choices be altered by seeing pictures—framed moments—of our later lives?
My husband and I drove across the country. We had a safe car, audiobooks, and enough cash to stay indoors. We were ready for fun.
But then there was this one night in Northern California.
It rained hard all day, and driving had been tough: windshield wipers on, difficult to see the road, some pretty serious fog. We were going to try to make it farther north but decided around seven o’clock to call it quits. We pulled into a small city and chose a small local motel, since the plan was to get some serious sleep and leave early the next day.
Fair enough, right? So far, so good. So what if there were no other vehicles in the parking lot? Maybe the staff all walked to work. It was the West Coast. They’re very health conscious out there.
And OK, the room was a little worse than usual. For starters, it had a neon-orange shag rug that had seen better days as far back as, say, 1972. I thought I heard crickets and perhaps Mac Davis singing “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” coming from inside the rug, but I convinced myself that my hearing was playing tricks. Surely the shag couldn’t be so deep that it had its own echo or sound system.
The room’s only attempt at decoration consisted of six faded clown prints fully bolted to the walls. What unnerved me was the implication that other guests had attempted to steal them.
There were twin beds covered with nylon paisley bedspreads so slippery that it was nearly impossible not to slide off directly onto the shag rug, thereby becoming consumed by whatever lived within its layers and/or Mac Davis.
Seeing the expression on my face, Michael said, “I’ll go get us some food.”
The understanding was that while he was gone, I would unpack whatever we needed, open the wine, and get our evening started. That was our routine. I looked around for those little plastic glasses that are usually on shelves in the bathroom. Not only were there no cups in the bathroom; there were no shelves.
There was, however, another clown print. But no cups, no glasses. I decided to drink the wine regardless.
My husband returned to find his wife sitting on a paisley nylon–covered bed drinking cheap wine directly out of the bottle while gazing stupefied at Bozo. In a falsely cheerful voice Michael announced, “The only thing I could find to eat was potato salad.”
“Where did you get potato salad where there was no other food?” I asked.
“There was a deli; it was closing, and I didn’t like the look of the cold cuts.”
I started rifling through the paper bag for napkins and cutlery. There were napkins but no spoons, knives, or forks.
“Michael,” I asked, “how are we supposed to eat this?”
“What do you mean?” he said.
“There are no implements,” I pointed out.
In a phrase I at first didn’t understand, Michael said, “I have a shoehorn.” He looked enormously pleased with himself.
Then I got it.
We sat at the ends of our respective beds, passing the bottle back and forth along with the plastic container of potato salad as we shoveled food into our mouths with a shoehorn.
Let’s face it: If you’d told me when I was a kid, “Honey, you’re gonna spend a night sitting in a sleazy motel eating potato salad with a shoehorn and staring at a clown print in silence,” would I have really worked so hard in college?
I used to think I’d like to see my future: “Oh, if only I could fast-forward a little bit and see where I end up, that would give me motivation to do well, to be all that I can be!”
We have to choose those snapshots carefully. None of them are representative: It’s all about context.
When Michael and I left the next morning, our drive took us though fields of orchids. Had we not stopped the night before, we would have driven past them in the dark.
A picture might be worth a thousand words, but you choose your words and your pictures carefully.
And always pack a shoehorn.