The motel is alive with post-prom action. It seems as if every teenager in the greater Boston area has converged on this Route 1 Econo Lodge to drink Wild Turkey, Schnapps, Grappa — or whatever else they have managed to steal from their parents’ liquor cabinet — dry hump, dry heave, pass out, smoke cigarettes, do bong hits, eat McDonald’s at 2 a.m., break up with someone, get dumped, kiss someone else’s boyfriend, fall in love and anything else that’s possible in a rented tuxedo or lilting party dress before the high heels give out or the night is finally over, which ever comes first.
Even with the radio turned up loud, Nancy can still hear the dramas going on outside the motel room. Sliding out of her sneakers, she drapes her feet on top of the compressed wood coffee table.
“The kids are already threatening not to come home this summer,” Gretchen drains her drink. “Ooh look at that. Guess I’m ready for another.”
Tina pushes a bottle of white wine along the coffee table towards the other end of the sofa.
“Remember when Linda cut her daughters’ hair off after finding out her husband was having an affair,” Gretchen’s hand trembles slightly as she refills her plastic cup. “Guess I’m not doing so bad.”
“You’re doing just fine,” Nancy sits opposite her two friends in a lumpy armchair.
“And your kids will come home this summer. Especially when they realize no one else is going to cook them dinner.”
Gretchen groans. “God, that is one thing I don’t miss. Making the damn dinner.”
Nancy nods to herself and sips her drink as “Bohemian Rhapsody” blares next door.
Staying in a hotel had been Tina’s idea. “You should pretend you’re on vacation. Just to get through the first night,” she’d said to Gretchen.
As usual, Nancy was the one who ended up actually finding the place. It hadn’t been easy. Downtown turned out to be way too expensive and most other motels were all booked because of the prom. So here they are instead, the gateway to the North Shore, beach-themed strip malls featuring family restaurants with oversized lobsters perched on the roof, parking lots adorned with crumbled seashells, rusted anchors, buoys, shacks selling large, inflatable dolphins, fried clam strips, salt water taffy, all hinting at the promise of sea air and relaxation just a few miles away.
The opening notes of “Let’s Get It On” come on the radio. “God, I looove this song,” Tina springs to her feet, pulling Nancy and Gretchen up with her.
They hold hands and dance in Suite 603, a view of the highway and a boarded up movie theater below. You can still smell the cigarette smoke leftover from the previous occupants. The furniture, wall-to-wall carpeting and curtains are all burnt orange, the same color of the sun a few hours earlier when they unloaded the last of Gretchen’s possessions into her new apartment behind the Porter Square Star Market.
After the song ends, the women sit back down.
“I’m just going to change out of these stinky clothes,” Nancy heads to the bathroom. She washes her hands over and over to get the dirt out from under her fingernails, peels off her sweaty T-shirt, then does what she can with a washcloth. Today had been much physically harder than she’d expected. A moving company had already brought the heavy things — furniture, dishes, books, the washing machine and dryer — from the home where Gretchen and her husband had lived and raised their children for the past 22 years. All that was left were photographs, a couple of small paintings, her grandmother’s china set, and some clothing. But it took hours. Gretchen’s station wagon couldn’t hold everything, so they had to make two trips, instead of just one. And her apartment was a third floor walk up.
Nancy takes off her socks and inspects her right ankle, which is throbbing. It hasn’t been the same since she sprained it last summer trying to keep up with her daughters on a hiking trip through Bryce Canyon. Then she runs the water and calls Dennis.
“Hi hon,” the sound of her husband’s voice can still make the back of her neck tingle.
“Hi,” she whispers.
“Girls Night Out going well?” he whispers back.
“It is, but she really wants us to stay overnight with her. I can’t get out of it. Sorry.”
“I’ll try to manage somehow without you.”
After hanging up, Nancy changes into a clean shirt, tries to smooth out runaway strands of hair, then checks her teeth for leftover bits from the Chinese takeout.
“That is too good,” Gretchen is laughing at something Tina said when Nancy comes back out.
“What?” she asks.
“Nothing. Really. You had to be there,” Tina rifles through her bag. “Oh, Gretchen, I got you a little present.”
“You shouldn’t have,” Gretchen glances at Nancy, who smiles weakly.
“Well, I did. Here,” she hands her a small box with a ribbon on it.
“Really, you didn’t need to,” Gretchen mumbles as she opens it up. “Oh, these are beautiful,” she gasps as she lifts out a pair of glittery earrings, similar to ones that Nancy noticed on some of the prom-goers. “Thank you, honey,” she gives Tina a slight hug and puts them on.
“They look great on you, I knew they’d suit you,” Tina lifts Gretchen’s hair to get a better view. “Don’t they look nice on her?”
“Oh, yes, they’re lovely,” Nancy manages.
“I propose a toast,” Gretchen stands. “Here’s to you guys. I don’t know what I’d have done without you two.” They click their plastic cups together. “Did you know this was the honeymoon suite? Isn’t that just too much?”
Sirens wail off in the distance. On the radio, Yesterday’s Hits with Bruce turns into a call-in show about home renovations, but no one gets up to change the station.
“Well that was the longest we’ve gone without talking,” Gretchen reaches for her purse. “Okay, my turn to freshen. Back in a sec.”
The bathroom fan whirs on.
“Thank God she’s out of that mess,” Tina lights a cigarette. The two women’s eyes meet for a second, then they look quickly away and sip their drinks.
Gretchen returns with a coupon book that Nancy noticed by the sink. “Guess what? That club Faces is right next door. The place that’s advertised all the time on Channel 56. I’ve always wanted to go there. And we have four free passes.”
“Oh we have to go, ” Tina shrieks.
A slight twinge of panic comes across Nancy. With the exception of her niece’s wedding last year, she had never actually been inside a club before. “But this is nice,” she tries.
“Oh come on, Nancy, don’t be a killjoy,” Tina snaps. Nancy blushes.
“You know, maybe Nancy’s right. This is nice and I am pretty tired,” Gretchen curls her legs up on the couch.
“You two sound like a bunch of little old ladies. Come on, I thought we were going to let our hair down tonight,” Tina slumps back on the sofa and checks her fingernails, adopting her waiting-in-an-airport-terminal-to-board-a-long-overdue-flight look.
Once again a few minutes pass without any sounds inside the room except for the occasional rattling of ice against plastic when someone lifts a cup and a heated discussion about carpenter ants on the radio.
Finally, Tina gets up to find some music. “Gretchen, I can’t believe we spent the whole day together and we haven’t talked about Larry yet.”
“Oh my God, I completely forgot about that,” Gretchen laughs. “Nancy, we must have told you about Larry.”
Nancy shakes her head while she forces an interested smile. Sometimes an entire evening with the two of them can be taken up with their workplace gossip.
“Larry is our new supervisor,” Gretchen explains.
“Remember, we were really pissed because he had no clinical experience with addicts and they had overlooked so many better qualified people. Like yours truly,” Tina points at herself, then Gretchen.
“Oh yeah,” Nancy hopes this will be brief.
“Turns out he’s sleeping with the head of human resources,” Gretchen lowers her voice. “People have heard them having sex in her office. In the middle of the day.”
“Tell her about….” Tina howls.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Gretchen says. “So on Thursday…”
She is interrupted by pounding on the door. They all look at each other. Finally Nancy gets up to open it. Two girls engulfed in taffeta stumble into the room. “Ta da,” the taller one announces before realizing whoever they were expecting to find is not in here at all. “Where’s the party?” she says like it’s her friend’s fault.
“Right here,” Tina says. “The party is right here.”
“Krista said it was in the suite on the fifth floor,” the dark-haired girl who ever so slightly resembles Nancy’s younger daughter. “She is such a complete bitch.”
“This is the sixth floor, dear,” Nancy intends to be helpful, but it comes out condescending instead.
“The honeymoon suite,” Gretchen says to no one in particular. “Still can’t get over that.”
“You ladies want a cocktail?” Tina beckons them towards the couch.
“Um,” the dark-haired girl looks at her friend, waiting for her to decide.
“Tina,” Nancy whispers.
“Just one little drink.”
“We should get going,” the tall one says. “They’re gonna wonder where I am.”
“What time is it anyway?” Tina is talking too loudly.
“9:30,” the dark-haired one checks her watch.
“Only 9:30 and the prom’s already over?”
“Yeah, they have ’em early now,” she doesn’t offer more in the way of an explanation.
“Seems like such a long time since my kids were dealing with the prom,” Gretchen says. “Did you girls have fun?”
“Depends on who you ask,” the tall one shrugs. “I did, but Louise was all miserable during it. As usual.”
Louise doesn’t seem to be listening; instead she’s busy fiddling with a strap that’s come undone. “Shit, I lost the safety pin again. Now I look totally stupid,” her voice cracks slightly. Her friend tries halfheartedly to reassure her, but it seems like one more defeat in a long night of humiliations for Louise. “I’m just going to go home.”
Then her friend really lets her have it. “Great. Now I have to go to the party all by myself. I wish I’d gone in Greg’s car. Thanks a lot, Louise.”
“I’m sure I saw one of those travel sewing kits in the bedroom. Hold on a sec,” Gretchen goes into the other room, where a king-size bed dominates. “Here we go,” she returns triumphantly with a small plastic box. “I’ll fix you.”
Gretchen kneels on the couch behind the girl, draping her long thick hair over one shoulder. Louise slouches over while the strap is sewn back onto her dress. Her friend stands there, shifting from one leg to the other, sighing loudly. Someone calls someone else a bitch in the hallway.
“There you go,” Gretchen gives her a quick pat and moves away from her. “You’re all set now.”
Louise gives a slight tug to double check that it’s okay. “Thanks,” she mumbles.
“We really gotta get going,” the tall one tries again.
“Okay. We’re going,” Louise rolls her eyes, shuffling behind her friend.
Tina starts laughing as soon as they are out of the room. “Oh my God,” she doubles over.
“That poor girl,” Nancy says.
“How about when…” Tina starts to say, but then they both realize that Gretchen has started to cry.
“Oh honey,” Nancy gets up and sits next to her on the couch, putting her arm around her.
“Sorry,” Gretchen covers her face with both hands and shakes while her friends pat her back. Then she wipes her eyes, fans her cheeks with her fingertips. “I don’t know what happened. It’s just…” she starts crying all over again.
“You don’t need to apologize,” Nancy says. “Especially to us.”
“This is really hard. You cry all you want, I sure did.”
“It’s just…,” Gretchen tries again.
“You’re going to be okay, trust me,” Tina rests her head on her shoulder. “You’ll feel like shit for awhile, and then one day you’ll feel better. I know it’s hard to believe, but you really will.”
Nancy gets Kleenex from the bathroom. “Would a change of scenery help?” she’s unable to offer any advice based on personal experience.
“Maybe,” Gretchen blows her nose.
“What do you say we go check out Faces,” Nancy says.
“Okay,” Gretchen brightens a little.
“Now you’re talking,” Tina grabs her bag. “Let me just see if I can fix this,” she traces a circle around her face with a finger.
After a little lipstick, deodorant re-application and hair fluffing, Nancy feels ready for a nightclub. The women thread their way through clusters of prom-goers in the parking lot, getting in and out of cars pulsating with music. A few are trying to get into Faces with fake ids, but no one seems to be able to make it past the refrigerator-sized bouncer who even cards Nancy and her friends. Only Tina, a regular at any place with a Ladies Night, is used to this. “Don’t be flattered, you have to practically be comatose to avoid this,” she fishes her driver’s license out of her wallet.
Once inside they settle themselves on stools near the bar.
“The rule is only holiday cocktails,” Tina shouts, her voice barely audible above the pounding Top 40 music. “Mai tais, Daiquiris, Pina Coladas. Anything with an umbrella in it.”
“What about Margaritas,” Gretchen shouts back.
“Margaritas count,” she says, after a moment of contemplation.
Once they’ve got their drinks, they start to survey the scene. Everyone is dressed like they’re at a wedding rehearsal dinner, an older version of the motel next door. Couples, small groups of women and men huddled together, looking for love, a good time, a quick fuck, a revenge fuck, free drinks, free lines, anything that will make this Saturday night stand out against all the other Saturday nights.
“Hey, we never told her about Larry,” Tina says.
“Oh yeah,” Nancy tries to sound interested.
“So, after awhile we kind of work out a pattern they seem to have. Usually Thursdays after the staff meeting…”
“And Tuesday during lunch,” Tina adds.
“Yes, so this Thursday, after the meeting, Larry’s door is closed as usual, and the president of the board shows up saying he has an appointment with him.”
“And we’re all stalling, because no one wants to go get him.”
“So finally, we send this new intern.”
“You should have seen the look on the girl’s face when she came back,” Tina and Gretchen hold onto each other as they laugh.
A man approaches the three women and asks Gretchen to dance. Then someone else asks Tina. Nancy sips her drink and watches her friends. After two songs they come back.
“Well, that was fun,” Gretchen giggles and gets another round. The bar area is really crowded now so they abandon the stools and lean against a small table jutting out of a pole.
“Lizzie has announced that she’s going to Alaska this summer to work on a fishing boat or something,” Tina says. “I told her that they don’t have pedicures on boats. Can you imagine my daughter fishing?”
“Oh, I bet she’ll love it,” Gretchen wipes the salt off her lips. “One of Mary’s friends worked in a cannery there last summer. She had a complete blast and made a pile of money.”
“The thing with those fishing boats is they’re pretty small. Like one bed and one lonely fisherman for a whole month,” Tina curls in her lips. “Not something you want to contemplate as a mother.”
“Is this semester going better than the fall?” Nancy asks.
“Well, no anorexic roommate and no suicidal boyfriend, so I guess that’s somewhat of an improvement. But, I think she’s really homesick. It’s been a hard first year. I don’t know why she’s pulling this Alaska crap, when it’s pretty obvious she’d rather just be at home.”
They watch the dance floor for awhile and then Nancy goes to get more drinks. She waits while the bartender gets three beers for the man next to her, two cosmopolitans for a woman, gin and tonics, martinis for some other people. But it never seems to be Nancy’s turn. Finally she waves around a twenty like the others have done and screams out “three margaritas please.”
Balancing the glasses in her hands, she returns to her friends. But the music is so loud, it is hard to hear what they are saying and after awhile she stops trying and watches people dancing instead. Most of them aren’t very good except for one couple who seen melted together, writhing around on the dance floor like a clothed version of a porn film.
A man starts talking to Tina. “Let’s Get It On” comes on and the women look at each other and smile. He takes this as encouragement and asks her to dance. Another one buys Gretchen a drink.
“Good crowd tonight,” a guy with his shirt unbuttoned too far down says to Nancy.
She nods. They stand there for a few minutes not saying anything. Nancy looks down into her empty glass and wishes he would go get her a refill. “You like limericks?” he says after awhile.
“I said do you like limericks?” he shouts, looking her up and down, lingering for a moment on her chest.
“How about jokes? You must like jokes.”
“How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
“I think I know that one.”
“Oh,” he stirs his drink, chews on some ice. “You work or are you one of them stay home thingamajigs.”
“Yeah, what do you do then?” he’s so close to Nancy that she has to press up against someone else to avoid touching him.
“I’m a therapist.”
“Oh, well, aren’t we fancy,” little droplets of spittle spray out of his mouth when he talks. Nancy tries to locate her friends. Gretchen is right there talking to the same man, but Tina hasn’t returned. A quick glance around the dance floor doesn’t locate her.
“Listen, I need to find my friend. I’ll be right back,” she inches her way past him, then waits for Gretchen to finish talking, but she doesn’t. “Excuse me, sorry,” Nancy finally interrupts her. “Do you see Tina?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were there. Jon, this is my oldest friend in the world, Nancy. Nancy, this is Jon.” They shake hands, and Gretchen looks around. “No, I don’t see her,” Gretchen bulges out her eyes and smiles. “Wow,” she mouths.
“I’m just going to look for her, make sure she’s okay.”
“Nancy, I’m sure she’s fine,” Gretchen gives her a puzzled look and turns back to Jon.
The unbuttoned shirt guy has started in on another woman at the other end of the bar. Gretchen and Jon take their drinks and go sit at a table, and she still can’t see Tina anywhere. With nothing better to do, Nancy heads for the bathroom, which is downstairs at the end of a carpeted hallway. Like the rest of the place, it is busy and she waits in line behind two girls who look like they could have been at the prom earlier. “Just ’cause she’s hooked up with Gary doesn’t mean she has to stay home every night,” one says. “Yeah totally. She is so fucking boring,” the other one adds. Nancy checks old messages on her cell phone to avoid hearing the rest of their conversation.
It isn’t until she is trying to balance over the wet toilet seat that Nancy realizes she’s had way too much to drink. A couple of glasses of wine over dinner are the most she usually has. She washes her hands in the sink with the least amount of hair and goes out.
The club seems darker now, the music louder and it takes a while to make her way back. The mirror-covered walls don’t help. Neither do the strobe lights. Finally she spots Tina still with the man she was dancing with earlier. They are on the other side of the dance floor, sitting along the back wall, kissing. Nancy looks away, her face getting hot.
Gretchen isn’t in the bar anymore and neither is Jon. Nancy checks the dance floor, the bar, even returning to the bathroom, but she isn’t anywhere. Nancy goes to tell Tina, but decides against it.
Then the dj announces that this is going to be the last one. Another Marvin Gaye song. The crowd has thinned out to just a few couples and some people still on their own, despite their best intentions.
The lights come up. Nancy waits at the bar for her friends to come back. Waitresses are putting chairs up on tables, mopping up spilled drinks, the busboys dragging out bags of garbage to the dumpsters in back.
“Hey lady,” the bartender calls to her. “You okay? Can I call you a cab?”
“I’m fine, just waiting for my friends.”
“I don’t think they’re here,” he looks around the club which is completely empty except for the people who work there.
“Maybe they’re already back at the motel,” she says, but he’s busy wiping down the bar back and doesn’t seem to hear her.
Outside it is much colder than it was earlier and Nancy wishes she had brought a sweater. Her ankle feels all swelled up as she limps back across the deserted parking lot.
Someone is throwing up by the front doors of the motel. Inside the lobby, a girl cries quietly on the sofa, while a couple lie intertwined near the coffee machines. The front desk clerk has fallen asleep, a magazine spread out underneath his left cheek.
The honeymoon suite is dark and empty. Nancy decides to take a quick nap before attempting the long drive home. Using her finger, she brushes her teeth with toothpaste from the “Compliments” bag on the back of the toilet. Then she lies on the sofa, listening to cars swooshing out on the highway, the muffled sounds of a party on the floor below.
When her daughters were little, before they had started school and she was home with them all day long, she would sometimes fantasize about running away for a night to a motel like this one. All she ever wanted back then was to have a few uninterrupted hours of solitude. Now the house is always quiet, except for when they come home for vacation. She thinks of her husband, probably asleep for hours already, spread out in their large, comfortable bed.
After awhile she drifts off. In an hour, she’ll stir slightly when Gretchen comes back. Then, just as it’s starting to get light, Tina will return. Tomorrow the three women will have breakfast together and maybe even dinner later on in the week. Nancy will listen while her friends tell her everything that happened, every last detail. She will laugh and say stop it and I can’t believe it and you’ve got to be kidding me. Her friends will tell their stories again and again and again. It will continue on like this for a few months. Then, after awhile, they will stop talking about what happened on Prom Night when they stayed in the Honeymoon Suite at the Route 1 Econo Lodge.