We all dine on this rhetoric from time to time: If I could be somewhere—anywhere—else, everything would be okay. I sit down to a meal of it five times a day. I grow fat from it. But, really, I of all people should know better. I grew up in a dumpy motel in Honor, Michigan—which is to say Nowhere, Michigan: Hick capital of the Yankee North. My parents managed and maintained The Honor Motel (THM) entirely on their own, which meant our family lived in a very small “apartment” attached to the lobby; travel, in its purest, physical sense, was virtually impossible: we were anchored, awaiting the sporadic customer—that DING we could hear from the den, kitchen, our shared bedroom. But I never thought of it as entrapment—this was our kingdom: glorious, strange, melancholic.
I have a hard time recalling how daily life went back then. I was two, three, four, five, six. Mom was teaching sixth grade in a crappy school system and doing the housekeeping when she got home. Dad tended bar a town over at the Crystal Lake Golf Club and drank. My older brother spent most of his afternoons pretending to be a horse while I rode on his back yelling shit about being a princess. And at night, in our shared bedroom, my brother and I were foxes: we had our dens—were protected. Everything was a game, make-believe. It had to be.
The most thrilling occasion was when Mom carted me around to help her clean rooms. She let me peel the soiled sheets from the bed and toss the bottles and cans into the trash. I never understood why she was so disgruntled doing this work. For me, it was an investigation into another person’s private, gritty, lonely night. THM housed the strangest travelers: usually single men with little luggage and calloused, cracked hands. Tourists stayed in cottages or B&Bs; THM was sub-Motel 6—probably Motel 2.75. My running narrative was that people rented these rooms to kill people (or possibly cats) in, so I’d scour the carpet, reach under the bed, search the white sheets for evidence of blood, burnt hair—looked beneath the sink for weapons (this is where my brother said they’d hide them), pinched lint and receipts off the floor and brought them to Mom: “What do you think this means?!”
Winters in Northern Michigan are long, brutal. Sometimes it took hours to shovel Dad’s Trooper out just to drive ten miles south to Farmer John’s for a carton of eggs. And there was no escape to Starbucks, the mall, a movie theatre. Because my brother and I spent long hours in the dark apartment and knew little of the world outside Honor and the motel, we developed tumor-sized imaginations that sprouted legs and walked us all over the planet—sometimes beyond. We each had our own brigade of imaginary friends, marching out of the recesses of our mind and into the physical world whenever shit got tough or cold or just plain boring.
My favored imaginary friend was named Harry. Harry was a world traveler, looked like Cousin It, and donned a khaki safari vest and hat. He’d touch down at THM every two weeks or so, stay for a few days to regale with stories of his travels, then hit the dusty trail again to some made up island where My Little Ponies sunbathed on white shores like sea lions. And when I got a little older, weirder, arguably slightly disturbed, Harry developed the ability to travel through strangers’ dreams and imaginations. This, too, was when my fascination with the dirtied motel rooms began in earnest, perhaps obsessively so: it seemed I, too, had been imbued with the power to inspect others’ interiors—bottles and cans and ash covering the carpet like the first-snow—evidence of the sadness I suspected made up the whole human genome.
The best thing about having Harry around wasn’t that he got me through a weird youth. It was that my whole family had an odd respect and reverence for Harry when he visited. For example, on more than one occasion Harry rudely burst in right when we were sitting down to our dinner of spaghetti or Hamburger Helper, and I’d yell to Mom or Dad, “No! Don’t sit! Harry’s sitting there!” And they’d politely give up their seat to my imagination, eat leaned over the kitchen counter or on the couch, all through dinner asking me to relay Harry’s adventures across the world and into others’ minds.
In retrospect, the paradox of living in THM is a real beauty: We (the family) were in close proximity, but often far apart—lost, staggering in different directions, but all stuck to the same Band-aid, protecting a wound none of us had any memory of, like when you fall on your face in a blackout, no knowledge of when or where or how it happened. But still the dull pain persists for weeks, a scar visible not to yourself but others. See: Dad, anxious and angsty by default, quelling his fears with drugs, alcohol. See: Mom, overworked and underpaid, afraid of motherhood, poverty, spending long hours in the backyard chain smoking, her intermittent sighs audible through the screen door. See: Older Brother just arrived at the knowledge of his adoption, writing his first shaky letter to his biological mother. See: Me, sitting Indian style on my twin bed, sharing animal crackers with Harry, asking him about sadness.
Yes, if you could just be somewhere—anywhere—else, all the soiled selves will flag out the open car window—laundry too small and constricting for the big, confident You that’s going to arrive with chest puffed and mighty, eyes wide with wonder, all the cynicism and alcoholism that clouded them now clear as the sky you’re there to envy. All you really need is an ocean, or a mountain, or a city large enough for anonymity. Because you can’t stand your own mind, body. There must be somewhere to quiet their demands—the persistent memories that live in your gut, throat, aching head.
Years later, after Dad did the rehab thing and we moved into a two-story house and got a collie and spent whole afternoons at the mall in Traverse City, we took a few trips: DC, Alabama, Colorado—White House, ocean, mountains. These were nice trips. But the real adventure, fun, and voyaging happened in the backseat of our minivan, en route, between me and my brother—always the games, the make-believe—conspiracies about what the ocean was hiding or how the mountains really got there.
This sounds nuts, but to this day, I don’t fully segregate the experiences I have in dreams from those I have in waking life—often the distinction seems irrelevant. I’m with Freud on the import of dreams and imagination to the overarching journey of life. What the mind creates is just as cool and often far more satisfying than a big hole in the ground or a bunch of water spewing over a ledge. If God or Whatever made the whole wide world for man to cultivate and gawk at, so the individual constructs imaginary worlds that give us the strength and empathy to endure said physical world. And no, this is not simply escapism: my childhood imagination did not remove me from my family. It brought me closer to them.
It seems the blandest of revelations to recall the vastness within oneself. But, oh, I forget—it’s just what grownups do—and when I remember the multitudes of my youth, the many worlds and feelings I could inhabit all at once, the restlessness settles and clears, and I am left again with the childlike giddiness that anything can happen, and will.