Middle-Class Love Story | by Chuck Radke | creative nonfiction

            We were checking into a hotel on the California coast when the woman behind the counter slipped me a piece of stationery. “Don’t be surprised by the numbers,” she said. She had pulled her mask down to whisper this, turning her face to one side. There were others behind me waiting to check in, and I could sense them trying to glance over my shoulder. But this secret wasn’t for them; it was only for me. I drew close enough to the woman to read her name badge: Sylvia. I cupped my hand over my hearing ear and leaned it close to her glossy lips.
            “So,” Sylvia murmured. She rotated the stationery so it was right side up for me, using the long, polished nail of her index finger to guide my eyes through the numbers. “The top number is what the room normally goes for,” Sylvia said. Her fingernail clicked, clicked, clicked on the smooth counter. “The bottom is what you are paying now.”
            Sylvia was working me for an upgrade, so I played it shrewd. I made a show of studying both numbers: the one I’d signed up for and the one she was trying to get me into. There was an enormous difference between the number on top and the one on the bottom. With that difference, I knew I could buy a high-mileage Hyundai or a gas fireplace insert or a nice new mattress without a ditch in the middle. Two, for that matter. 
            Sylvia asked me what I thought. “Well, Mr. Radke?” Something inside me started to flutter. The room in question had an ocean view and a cozy fireplace. I’d already seen it online when I made the decision to reserve the least expensive room in the whole fancy-schmancy place, a room on “the interior” with a view of a lovely courtyard, a room that wouldn’t take me several months to pay off. In fact, I had already told Karen on the drive over that I was sorry I didn’t spring for the oceanfront room with the balcony, even though it was our twentieth wedding anniversary and it overlooked a bay full of playful sea otters, Karen’s favorite marine mammal. You don’t need to tell me. This was a thoughtless move, and I had spent the last hour of the drive feeling like a cheap bastard. Jesus, we had made it twenty years and I skimped on the accommodations? If anyone deserved an upgrade, it was my wife. Ask the people who know her and they’ll tell you: Karen deserves an ocean view. Karen deserves sea otters.
            “It’s okay,” she said. “Hotel rooms are for sleeping anyway.” 
            This is what we have always said about hotel rooms: they’re a place to lay our heads when we aren’t towing our kids through theme parks or unfamiliar cities, which is what we did a few years ago while on a trip to visit Karen’s sister on the other side of the country. We happened to stop for the night in one of the fifteen U.S. cities1 that allows people of all stripes to appear topless in public. There are something like 20,000 cities in the U.S., and we happened to settle in one, from the waist up anyways, with a clothing-optional civic center. Of course, we didn’t figure this out until we found ourselves on the mean, naked streets with our three children, in search of a restaurant that offered both a kid’s menu and full slate of microbrews. It was like a bad dream. Everywhere we looked—the bus stop, the sidewalk, the grassy knolls in the city park—there was an exhibition of luxuriant armpit hair and slack, pendulous breasts.
            The women walked around topless, too.
            Sylvia stood in her sharp blue blazer, tapping on her keyboard and staring into her screen, when something appeared there that struck her as strange. “Wow,” she said. Her eyes widened and her nose wrinkled. “This doesn’t happen very often,” she said. It was so rare, in fact, that Sylvia called another woman over to look at the screen, kind of a second professional opinion, I guessed. This second woman also wore a sharp blue blazer, only her name badge read Myrna.
            “Myrna’s been here longer than anybody else,” Sylvia said. “Right, Myrna?”
            “Thirty years,” Myrna said.
            “And this doesn’t happen very often, does it?”
            Myrna said no, that it doesn’t happen very often. “And I’ve been here thirty years,” she said.
            Together, Sylvia and Myrna in their sharp blue blazers stared into the computer screen as though studying a disconcerting shadow on a chest x-ray. Karen stood off to the side, clutching her purse in both hands and looking at me with big hopeful doe eyes, like a Precious Moments figurine. 
            “What is it?” I asked. “Sylvia? What doesn’t happen very often?” That little flutter now felt like a pigeon trapped in my chest. One second I’m edging toward an upgrade with an unobstructed view of sea otters, the next, Sylvia’s deep-sixing our anniversary with surprising, unusual news coming from her computer screen. Because I am a natural-born pessimist, I figured our room with a courtyard view had been double-booked and already given to some other, more suitable married couple, maybe Meghan and Harry, which would leave me and Karen to be reassigned to the little barnacled seafoam motor lodge down the street. The one with guest rooms overlooking the trash bins behind the Fishhopper. The one with white ribbons of seagull shit streaking its sun-blanched awnings.
            It was at this point I pulled Karen close to me so she nestled into the crook of my shoulder. This is how we stand when we brace for bad news. In my mind, I’d already considered what level of outrage would be appropriate. I’d already practiced my “I’m not leaving here until you give me” speech, already rehearsed how we’d stomp out, already crafted the social media campaign I’d launch to shame the uppity place.
            “Well, Mr. Radke,” Sylvia began. She turned and whispered to Myrna at this point, just to heighten the tension a bit. She pointed at her computer screen. Then Myrna pointed at it too. There was a lot of pointing and whispering going on between them. They were like eighth-grade girls in gym class. Then, triumphantly, Sylvia said this: “It appears we have the Presidential Suite available for the night.” 
            I looked at Karen and watched her mouth gawp into an oval.
            Now, wait a minute. I wasn’t born yesterday. This was just like when I used to tend bar and someone ordered a gin and tonic. First words out of my mouth were “Bombay or Tanqueray?” This was the Art of the Upsell, and Sylvia was playing me for a fool, but I went along with it as she took out a new piece of hotel stationery and began to write.
            “Again,” she said. “Don’t be shocked by what I’m about to show you.”
            The people behind us in line were growing restless. I could feel them edge a bit closer, kind of like what you’d see in a casino movie where a high-roller begins to take too much of the house’s money. After a moment, Sylvia slipped me the new piece of stationery, only now there were three numbers written on it. There was a really big number on top, a much smaller number on the bottom, and now, in the middle, a number Sylvia called “the upgrade fee.”
            (Later, I did a quick search of the World Wide Web and came up with a list of a few things I could have purchased with the upgrade fee:
                    ▪ Five years of Netflix
                    ▪ Four snow tires
                    ▪ Four shares of Moderna stock and two shares of Pfizer
                    ▪ One hot air balloon ride
                    ▪ One ticket to a Beyonce concert
                    ▪ One annual pass to Disneyland
                    ▪ One toy helicopter you can control with your brain.)
            “This,” Sylvia said, pointing to the middle number, “is what you would pay for the upgrade.” Her finger was dark and tapered. Her voice had gotten smoky. “Add this number to the bottom number, which, Mr. Radke, you are already paying, and you’ll get The Works.” 
            Oh my God: The Works.
            Sylvia was now asking me to do math, which forced a rerouting in my brain. Had it been controlling a toy helicopter at the time, things would have ended badly for the helicopter. I was trying to add numbers at the same time I was trying to fathom the raunchy implications of The Works. Remember, I was all set to storm from the lobby, huffy-puffy, vowing to bring the hotel to its glamorous little knees with a blistering Yelp! review. But Karen, who actually teaches math, did a quick calculation, locked eyeballs with me, and transferred the following thought to my brain: We could feed our children for a year with that, two if we eat only Taco Bell.
            “You would have your own private deck with a view of the bay,” Sylvia said. She turned her eyes to her screen, as though some amenity could be added at any moment: a personal bartender, temporary pet goldfish, liposuction. 
            “It’s a beautiful suite,” Myrna said.
            Sylvia said, “You would have two fireplaces. Your own kitchen. A master bath with a walk-in shower.” Then, the rope-a-dope, the coup de grace, the clincher. “And you wouldn’t need an appointment at our spa,” Sylvia said, “since your deck has its own private hot tub.” Since we were standing so close, I felt Karen’s heart seize up at the words private hot tub. This is probably what it looked like in her head: “PRIVATE HOT TUB!” She got this little catch in her breath. She bit down on her bottom lip. For Karen, this was a moment she’d waited for her whole life; it was the pumpkin turned diamond-studded carriage. Sylvia then underlined the upgrade fee twice, for emphasis. 
            “All of that,” Sylvia said, “for this.”
            Myrna said again, “It’s a beautiful suite.” Then, as if I didn’t believe her, she added: “It’s like a dream.” Suddenly, Sylvia and Myrna appeared before me like Sirens, speaking in whispers: like a dream...beautiful suite...private hot tub. I realized it was my mind playing tricks on me, but there was a fleeting moment when they morphed into belly dancers.
            I stood there feeling Karen’s rapid breaths against my ribs. She locked eyeballs with me again and transferred this new thought to my brain: I promise to be a very naughty girl. The people behind us in line were waiting on me. I could hear them, too. Live it up, they whispered. You only celebrate twenty years once! There was nervous tension on all sides of me. But most palpable for me was the hoo la la, which is a French phrase that translates loosely to “naked hot tubbing.” I knew it. Karen knew it. And the way Sylvia and Myrna were looking at us—the bewitching little twinkles in their eyes—I could tell they knew it, too. Yes, I could live it up. Yes, I could be very naughty. Like, my-heart-might-stop-in-the-middle naughty. Suddenly, I felt like a 31-year-old kid again.
            Saying no to Sylvia and Myrna at that point was pretty much out of the question. 
            “Give us The Works,” I said. I slapped my hand down on the stationery. I don’t know why I did this. It just seemed like a moment for something demonstrative and emphatic.  
            “I’m sorry,” Karen whispered. “I feel like I pressured you.”
            “Why are you sorry?” I said. “Don’t be sorry.”
            “I pressured you.”
            “You didn’t pressure me.”
            “Yes, I did!”
            Okay, maybe a little. But I wasn’t going to tell her that. I tried to make her feel less guilty with a song and dance routine. I sang the words private hot tub, private hot tub as I shuffled my feet and swiveled my hips and did this egg-beater thing with my arms. This was not a fine public moment for me, but the people behind us in line loved it.
            “I freakin’ love you,” Karen said. She pulled my face to hers and kissed my lips, and it may as well have been the final scene in a Meg Ryan romantic comedy. Everyone in the lobby began to clap. Valets whistled. Sylvia and Myrna threw rose petals. And in the background, a bellhop rolled by riding a gold luggage cart.2
            And then, we were off. The fantasy-turned-reality was all ours at that point. Karen was giddy. I was doing a masterful job hiding just how totally freaked out I felt, which is par for the course with me when it comes to spending money I don’t have. But the decision was decided, and as Sylvia’s fingernails floated over the keyboard (clickety click click clickety click), Karen and I floated straight into a snooty masquerade involving British accents, which lasted through the lobby and labyrinthine hall, to the super-secret elevator (“We’ll be carried in the private lift, thank you”), and finally down a carpeted hallway, across a moat full of crocodiles,3 to a door with a golden plaque bearing the words “Presidential Suite.” 
            We, of course, stopped for a selfie in front of the golden plaque. Then we rang the doorbell. These were two things that simply could not be avoided.

What I have yet to mention is that during this anniversary weekend, our twin, eighteen-year-old daughters were spending the month in Kona, a reality that quietly terrified us. We’d been living in the private hell of it long before they even left. It seemed like a good idea when we planned it out: college was online anyway, so why not study someplace beautiful? But then, we began to worry they’d never come back, and we were, in part, right. After one week, one of them definitively announced that she was no longer coming home. Ever. College, which she had just started, was also out. “I don’t like Fresno,” she said. She then went and got a tattoo of a wave (italics mine) on her ribs. Apparently, she posted this to some private social media account that both of her siblings knew of, but that we, her parents, did not. (Why not? I mean, we’re her parents!). Her new life plan was to quit college and bus tables at a seafood restaurant with a surfer she met named Nalu, which just so happens to be the Hawaiian word for [.  .  .]4 wave (italics again, mine).
            Hmmm.
            We had the opposite problem with the other daughter, who called us sobbing on the very afternoon we were supposed to be lounging half-drunk on our private deck, in our own private hot tub. Instead, we sat in our plush hotel bathrobes on the edge of the private hot tub and consoled our inconsolable daughter. “I’m sorry I ruined your anniversary,” she said. “This place is just not my vibe.” She wanted to come home early because she was lovesick for a boy she’d just started dating, a quiet, rangy guy who drove a tall white pickup, painted houses for a living, and, because he was practicing self-reliance and had eight siblings, slept in a treehouse on his parents’ property in the foothills. Given the young man’s current career path, I figured it was a beautifully painted treehouse.
            Then there was our thirteen-year-old son, who had (a) just started playing electric guitar, (b) recently become smarter than us, and (c) begun subsisting on a diet of the following: Froot Loops, pizza, ice cream, Greek yogurt, blueberry pancakes, and plain pasta. At some point during the capital-P pandemic, Karen and I lost our way with the boy, at least as far as his diet was concerned. He, like us, grew lethargic and nontalkative: “How was your school day?” Good. “What did you learn today?” Nothing. “I love you, son.” ‘Kay. Then there were times he’d appear behind us without warning and say something truly random: “Ron Weasley takes off all his clothes when he poops,” he’d say. Or, “What if God came to earth one day and said, ‘it’s pronounced Jawd,’ and left?” It was remarkable, really, and at least for the previous several months, his behavior had flummoxed Karen and me to the point of distraction. What had Covid done to our boy’s brain?
            We had come to realize that we were, by degrees, being replaced, which has been a more painful process for Karen; I hear it in every one of her sighs. She grew them. At the most primitive, cellular level, she felt them first.
            So, on the car ride to the coast, Karen and I had decided not to talk about them. We love our children, maybe too much, but we wanted to spend our day alone talking only about our hopes and dreams for ourselves: retirement, downsizing, stuff we might do while we could still chew food and pee voluntarily. Not only were we not going to talk about our children, we weren’t even going to think about them. Ha ha! We were going to dry-erase them from our minds and act like newlyweds again. We were going to drink champagne in the morning! We were going to drink vodka in the afternoon! We were going to drink wine in the evening! And then, after that, we were going to dust off the old playbook, if you know what I mean.
            If you are middle-aged like we are, you might guess how this one ends. If you are middle-aged like we are and cannot guess how this one ends, God bless you and your elegant debauchery.
            Turns out, we could not not talk about our children, which of course means that we could not not think about our children either. We could not, despite our best efforts and multiple afternoon cocktails, untether ourselves from them. Every other sentence seemed to begin with one of their names. And when sentences did not begin with one of their names, we somehow worked our way back to them.
            For example: In the last year or so, I have started flirting with sprinter vans: Perfect for dashing across town, or for a weekend getaway! Swiveling captain’s chairs, pedestal table dining, stainless steel appliances, a sofa that converts to a bed. Twenty-five feet of mobile luxury with a tiger under the hood. What’s not to love? I have this Blue Highways5 fantasy in which Karen and I drive the country without using an interstate. (Travel fantasies, by the way, are the equivalent of foreplay for the middle-aged:
            “Oh, a sprinter van…”
            “Not just any sprinter van. A Mercedes sprinter van.”
            “You’re making me sooo hot.”
            “Convenient kitchenette.”
            “Don’t stop.”
            “Ultra-leather furnishings.”
            “Get over here, big boy.”
            “Sleep for free in Walmart parking lots.”
            “You had me at ultra-leather.”)
            This conversation was almost verbatim from the talk Karen and I had on our private deck, wearing nothing but our bathrobes, having just broken the seal on our complimentary bottle of Central Coast Pinot, about ten minutes before our lovesick daughter called. I say “almost verbatim,” because Karen’s words (represented in bold) do not accurately reflect what actually came out of her mouth. Were I to be entirely truthful here, it sounded something more like this: “Oh, a sprinter van?” “Really?” “We could just eat out.” “And stay in hotels.” “They find dead bodies all the time in Walmart parking lots.”
            This last bit is actually true. I didn’t realize it at the time, but apparently, dead bodies in Walmart parking lots are what two Florida Today journalists described as a “phenomenon.”6 This is not the word I would have used, but I applaud them for coming up with and then publishing an entire list of these dead bodies, which were discovered mostly in nondescript parked cars, from January 2016 through July of 2018. All told, the journalists cobbled together the names of sixteen formerly alive bodies, most of which weren’t found until after unsuspecting Walmart shoppers noticed things like “foul odors” and “flies” emanating from the parked cars and then reported their findings to local police, at least several of whom were quoted as saying, “I’m not going near that. Call the coroner.”7
            Once Karen brought up the phenomenon of the Walmart Parking Dead, the romance of the moment fizzled a bit, because that was when I brought up the sprinter van’s utility and ease with which we could visit our children and, if we lived that long, our grandchildren.
            “I thought we weren’t talking about them,” Karen said. 
            “I forgot.”
            “Besides,” Karen said. “What good would it do if one of our children is living in Kona.”
            “We’ll put it on a ship.”
            “Stop.”

After the long talk with our lovesick daughter, we spent the rest of the gorgeous Saturday partly in our bathrobes, partly out of them. We polished off our free bottle of wine. We lounged in our private hot tub, soaking up the sunshine with a glorious buzz and imagining out loud that the passing helicopters were filled with paparazzi trying to photograph us. You know, you never know who you might see on the private deck of the Presidential Suite! Later, we dressed and walked to a rocky promontory covered in sea lions. We drank lemony cocktails and ate bruschetta on a quiet patio and watched a Coast Guard boat navigate its way into a narrow slip. Then we walked tipsily back to our suite, which Myrna would tell us the next day actually once housed a president:
            Me: “Myrna, have any presidents actually stayed in the Presidential Suite?”
            Karen: “She can’t tell you that!”
            Myrna: “Barack Obama!” 
            Me: “Apparently, she can.”
            Myrna: “He was so nice.”
And it wasn’t just Barack Obama. Myrna also said other super famous people (uh, Oprah, Michael Jackson) stayed there too, which made for some pretty interesting conjecture on the car ride home: We must have showered in the same shower, stood on the same balcony, ate at the same table, sat on the same sofa! (We didn’t bring up the private hot tub.)
            But before we knew any of this, the Presidential Suite was nothing more than a really big, luxurious room, one with its own library, one that square-footage-wise was the same size as our house, which means we could have raised three children there, you know, if we were careful and kept them from the climbing the rails. We did order room service, ate eighteen-dollar bacon cheeseburgers in our bathrobes, opened all the windows and turned on both fireplaces, then lounged on a sofa the size of a sprinter van to watch Jason Bourne movies. 
            While Bourne was kicking ass, Karen and I balanced between sleeping and waking, all the while listening to the waves smash against the rocky coastline, to the barking sea lions and cranky gulls. We watched the sun drop below the crenellated buildings in town, hot tubbed under the moon, then curled like cats by firelight. The next morning, we drank coffee from our private kitchen and fed one another chocolate-covered strawberries, which had chilled overnight in our private refrigerator. We gazed over the bay from our private balcony and watched the sea otters open mussels on their chests. 
            And as that early morning edged into later morning, we counted tour boats, and we could swear they slowed as they passed us, high on the cliffside. We watched as sleeved arms stretched from the boat, over the water, pointing right at us! Binoculars passed from watcher to watcher, each wondering, no doubt, just who they were seeing in plush hotel bathrobes open at the knee, forearms on the rail, looking so elegant, so at home, basking in the morning sun, in the glow of all their good decisions and extraordinary wealth. Who could they be, those two? And, What a perfect life they both must have. What a dream! Imagine what it would be like to a life of such comfort and ease!

________________

1 In case you were wondering, it was Asheville, NC. If you’re further wondering--you know, for your next family vacation--you’ll find the complete list of topless-tested cities on the very informative website CRAWLSF.com, which also tells you where to find party buses and concert tickets and pub crawls in San Francisco.
2 What really happened: Sylvia handed me a gift bag with a complimentary bottle of Central Coast Pinot Noir, then pointed with her pen to where we could catch the elevator to the private suites. Karen and I rolled our own suitcases.
3 A lie, of course. There were no crocodiles in the moat.
4 Long pause, for dramatic effect.
5 William Least Heat Moon’s masterpiece of American travel writing. Pick one up today wherever books are sold!
6 Sangalang, J., & Gallop, J.D. (15 June, 2018). “Dead bodies found at WalMart: A list,” Florida Today. Retrieved from https://www.naplesnews.com/story/news/crime/2018/06/15/dead-bodies-found-walmart-list/704490002/.
7 No local police were quoted as actually saying this.

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

Chuck Radke’s memoir, Stuccoville: Life Without a Net (WiDo), came out in January, 2021. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Stoneboat Literary Journal, Sierra Nevada Review, HASH, and others. His fiction has appeared in Mud Season Review, The San Joaquin Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gulf Stream Magazine, and The South Dakota Review. He received an AWP Intro Award for fiction and the Estelle Campbell Prize for literature from the National Society of Arts and Letters.