American motels

Joey Bruce

Their bodies are touching in the electric blue lights. It looks like a ballpoint pen has tipped over the room and tainted the dancers.

Jane’s wet blonde hair is dark with sweat and sticks to her back, exposed by her halter top. There’s hair stuck to her teeth, sticking to all the gaps between them. 

She’s holding on tightly to Quintana’s dark hand, the way women do in crowded places. Quintana’s golden hair is draped over her back like an expensive coat. It’s the colour of burnt grass, the kind that surrounds trailer parks. Her bangs are practically blinding her, dipping in her lilac eyeshadow and thick mascara. 

In this sea of white trash, she’s the Black queen. 

This is the American dream:

dancing in a sleazy club across from your motel in a nameless town. A town that’s sliced in half by a main street decorated with neon lights, some of which haven’t worked since ’78. Only the important ones still bellow in the dark: liquor store, vacancy, naked ladies, XXX videos, Sunday service.  

In this town, Jesus Christ is an essential, even at night. 

This is the American dream:

following a band in a beat-up blue pickup—two girls going to dark places, through thick crowds and smoke-filled rooms because they want to keep catching the lead singer’s pale, wet eyes—Paul’s. 

There’s a broken window in Paul’s eyes. They’re crying eyes. Girls swim in the salt like mermaids. They’d learn how to breathe underwater for Paul Holzer. 

The heavy bass switches for another when the song changes, and the blue lights turn into deep red. As Quintana cranes her neck to look for Paul—or any of the four guys for that matter—she catches the sight of two tongues mingling to her right. The couple’s teeth are tainted red by the lights, making it seem like they bit into each other’s flesh and drew blood. 

People hunt in this town. Quintana knows. They’re blood hungry, like to chase it for sport. She imagines, for a second, the couple’s stripped bodies hanging from a thread in some seedy guy’s garage, deep in the woods. 

Her veins throb. She tugs on Jane’s hand. 

“Have you seen the guys?”

Jane cranes her neck as well, her long hair swaying and caressing the middle of her back. 

The pretty one. 

As Jane shrugs, Quintana speaks again. 

“I wanna go back to our room.”

Jane rolls her eyes. 

“You always do this. You promised that if I let you come with me, you’d try to be fun.” 

The comment stings right between Quintana’s brown eyes. She bites the inside of her top lip hard and exhales heavily. 

“I know, I’m sorry. I’m just—I’m tired.”

“It’s only…” Jane looks at her designer knock-off watch that she still swears to Quintana is real. “2:50 a.m. We’re staying. Billy said he’d buy us drinks.”

Quintana searches the room for Billy—the drummer—or Marty or David. She knows Paul’s probably in the bathroom or some unlit corner doing coke off of a pretty girl’s breasts. She wishes she cared the way she pretends she does. 

Her heart lurches, suddenly—the kind of abrupt move it makes when you suddenly realize you want to go home—and it doesn’t surprise her. It’s been jumping around since she agreed to follow Jane across the country in a rented truck. All they’ve seen on the road for the past three weeks is the tour bus’s licence plate. Jane never said why the band hadn’t let them ride with them. 

Paul had jokingly said, naked next to Quintana on some forgettable bed, that “pretty girls spread their legs all fine, but then they wanna talk over the TV or your card games.” At her silence, he’d added—annoyed, somehow—“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!”

“We haven’t seen them in over two hours. Let’s just go back to our room and they’ll know to find us there.” 

Jane doesn’t say anything for a moment. Quintana knows they’re thinking the same thing: if they leave the guys’ sight, they’ll leave them behind. Jane will never say that out loud, though. She’ll never let herself admit she’s not an intrinsic part of everyone’s life. 

“I’ll buy you a drink,” she says instead. “You used to be fun in high school. What happened?” 

Quintana forces a laugh and walks through the damp mass of bodies. 

“We’ve _just_ finished. Technically, we’re still in high school.”

Jane rolls her eyes again and leads them to the tiny bar. The man behind—mullet-wearing, teeth yellowed by tobacco—smiles at them. Jane preens, and although he’s not interesting in the slightest, Quintana’s jealous because she sees the quick glint in his eyes when he looks at her friend. 

“What can I get you, pretty things? On the house.”  

“Well, if it’s on the house, we’ll get something for you, too.” Jane leans against the bar, her pale breasts spilling from her shirt. “Anything you want.” He smiles bigger at her, his tongue poking behind his broken teeth. “Quintana, what do you want?” she adds. 

“Whatever you’ll have.” 

People hunt in this town. Quintana knows. They’re blood hungry, like to chase it for sport.

Quintana looks around and spots Paul, beautiful eyes glazed over, walking towards them. He stands out in any crowd, but especially in this one. Even intoxicated, he walks with the confidence of someone who has never for a second doubted that he’s the favourite. Her body deflates with slight relief. She’s never truly relieved to see him, but at least he’s a familiar face. 

“Where were you, my muse? I was desperately bored without you,” he announces. Although he’s speaking to her, it feels like he’s addressing the whole room. 

“I was dancing, waiting for you.” The words sound clunky coming out her mouth; she’s imitating Jane. He doesn’t notice though; he didn’t know who she was before she got here. He smiles, all his straight teeth beaming at her. 

“Darling girl.” 

Even when he says ridiculously grand things like these, Quintana knows that Paul is never imitating anyone. He was born to be adored and to shimmer in the dark. 

The bartender slides her drink over to her—an old fashioned, which she hates—that Jane only ordered to impress him. It’s hard for Quintana to know who she is on these roads, who she’s been since meeting Jane over a year ago. She constantly imitates her friend who only does things she thinks other people want. Paul grabs the glass and takes a generous sip. 

“I love that you love old fashioneds,” he tells Quintana. He dips his fingers in the drink and fishes out the cherry. “Stick out your tongue for me, will you, babe?” 

As she does so, she thinks of her father. She left home to be with a bunch of strangers because she let her best friend convince her that she missed rock ‘n’ roll. Whatever that means. 

Paul puts the cherry on her tongue, and Jane slides closer to them because she wants to be close to anything that might attract attention. Quintana bites into it with a big, fake smile. Paul grabs her waist and kisses the corner of her jaw as she chews. 

“I’m gonna write a song about you,” he mumbles against her skin. “I’ll call it cherry or brown sugar or Black girl or something.”

So far, Paul’s written seven songs about her. About the way she chews, the way her accent changes when she speaks to her parents over the phone, about her natural hair, about how her ancestors were slaves, about Haiti, about her chipped nail polish. 

She used to find it romantic, back in the beginning of summer. Now, she’s wondering how many girls’ lives he’s stolen to put in his songs. How he capitalizes on the quirks they pretend to have to please men like him. The white boy writing about the Black girl’s life like she’s not even real. 

Quintana wants to say give me back my life. What she says instead is “can’t wait.” 

She’s the least powerful here. She only followed them because she thought every exciting teenage experience could only happen as long as Jane was near. She let her straighten her hair and dye it blonde, so she’d look like a real dream. 

She feels like an emptied-out ship. If she dies on the road, nothing will sink down the waves with her. She’s an empty shell. 

“I wanna go back to our room,” Jane says to Paul. 

He smiles at her. 

“You have the best ideas, sweet Jane.”

This article originally appeared in The Influence/Influenced Issue, published January 13, 2021.