When Marla comes home at the end of the day there is no one there waiting for her.
She switches on the bare bulb that hangs in the kitchenette. Her hands are sweating and smell like smoke and spilled cocktails. The clothes she'd put on just six hours ago now hang limply from her exhausted frame. She blinks her heavily made up eyes as she grabs a bottle of vodka from the ancient icebox.
She takes a large swallow, grimaces as the cheap booze burns it's way down her throat as it lands in her stomach like a lead balloon, exploding into hundreds of tiny little fireballs as it careens into her bloodstream.
She places the cold bottle against her feverish forehead. Behind closed eyes, visions of wide-eyed, thrashing batwings pulse inside her brain. She opens her weary eyes to see he is there now - the young, handsome man of her dreams - sitting at her table smiling his trademark smile, his ocean-blue eyes twinkling like marbles.
She feels numb; this is all she ever wanted, this dream to come true. A Prince Charming - her Prince Charming - to come and take her away from all of this sad, lonely existence.
He stands now, arms outstretched, palms open, inviting her touch.
She takes what her offers her, takes it without a second thought, and she instantly feels the world beginning to soften around her. Music begins - she doesn't know where it's coming from, doesn't really care - a soft rock ballad, and she begins to sway to the mildly pulsing beat. Their faces blur into each other, as one, making shadows on the walls, Prince and Princess shadow dolls.
''Your heart beats within me,'' he says, as he leads her by the hand out of the cramped room and outside away from her prison.
The moon's face, fat and full, smiles down upon them, so close she bathes in it's light.
Suddenly, all goes dark; she is engulfed within the blackness as if it is a death shroud. She can see the bones that hold the very earth together, the lonely, crumbling bones of lovers past in the vortex of loss.
Her dream man kisses her now, her neck and mouth, seeming to drain what little life she has left from her. His hands find their way up her dress, but she doesn't even feel it. When she wakes up, she is lying on the dirty, cold asphalt, staring up at the moon above her, but the horizon is tinged with dawn. She slowly picks herself up, hails a cab to take her home.
She arrives at her home again - her prison - knowing tonight will be no different. She knows that there will be no Prince Charming to save her; he died long, long ago, and only visits her in her dreams.
The numbness wearing off now, she takes what is left of the vodka from the table along with a handful of sleeping pills, swallowing ten of them, then walks into her pitch-black bedroom.
She never really dreams; she hasn't been truly awake in years.
Marla wishes she wasn’t so broke – the seedy motel is absolutely disgusting. Her first day there she takes the sheets and blankets to the launderette up the road and washes them herself, unable to get the images of motel rooms covered in glowing schmuck from all the CSI television shows out of her mind. On the way back she stops and gets things to clean the bathroom, figuring if she’s going to be stuck there for awhile, she might as well make it clean to her standards. Still… she really is wishing she could’ve afforded some place better, but this is all she can swing while she finds some kind of job. Otherwise she’s afraid she’ll run out of money before she can get herself settled.
Alex, that bastard, gave her next to nothing in the divorce. Somehow it was as if all that time, when he went to school and she worked nights and labor jobs and whatever else she could get to keep them going, never meant a thing. So he kept all the things that he’d paid for – the beautiful shiny black Mercedes that Marla picked out and kept in tip-top condition, the huge colonial on the hill that she’d decorated in lavish style, the hip friends that surrounded the pair and influenced their expensive wardrobes. Oh, certainly he got plenty of money for all of those designer outfits she’d paid for with his credit. And in return she got a small settlement to hold her over until she could figure out what the hell she’s going to do with her life. She laughs every time she thinks about how there was no need for pre-nuptials because he’d had nothing.
On the day they signed the divorce papers, Marla came home to find that he’d locked her out of the house and left all the things he was allowing her to take on the front porch. She sat there for a long time looking at the small car load that was now her only worldly possessions, utterly confused and completely lost. Then she put everything in her new used-car and started driving into the setting sun. She stopped only when she was totally exhausted and unable to keep her eyes open any longer, the dark coastal highway in front of her still stretching out for miles ahead. Funny then that the gloomy motel somehow feels like the end of the road. Her room is second from the end of the building, and as far away from the office as she can get. She would have taken the end room, but it was already occupied when she arrived. Felicia just didn’t want to be anywhere near the creepy manager after the way he asked if she was staying alone. Still, he let Marla have her choice of the farther rooms because she said she’d be staying long-term, and the people who stayed short-term got the rooms closest to the office, anyway. Besides, she reasons, the fact that there were mostly a lot of empty rooms between there and hers also makes it feel more like an apartment and less like a dingy, transitory motel.
Yet, it’s easy to be reminded how dreadful her situation is whenever she leaves her room. The hookers who get to pay hourly rates parade their johns in and out without an ounce of shame, drug dealers and users hang out in the parking lot, sometimes not even bothering to go into a room to cop or get high. On the second night when she went out to get cigarettes -after she’d decided she didn’t actually want to quit and Alex-that-bastard had made her- she saw a uniformed police officer and momentarily felt relief. Then she witnessed him drag the bloodied, handcuffed young man into one of the rooms talking very loudly about how he was going to give the little criminal something to cry about when he shoved his “monster cop night stick into his tight little ass.” Marla didn’t even know what to think about that, so she got a bottle of red wine while she was out and drank most of it within a few minutes of her return. She learned that night, as she listened to the boy’s hoarse screaming, that she always wanted to have some kind of background noise to drown out whatever was actually going on outside of her room.
She learns the rules quickly and it’s easy enough to settle into a life there; you just pay your rent on time and don’t leave your room unless you have to. And always get enough booze and smokes to last through the night.
Nursing a dreadful hangover the next afternoon, Marla decides to listen to some very loud, very dark, very heavy music to try to make herself feel a little worse than she already does. Lying listlessly on the bed, she pushes play on her I-Pod (one of the few items she’d managed to smuggle out) and the tiny but expensive speakers make the bed positively vibrate as the heavy beat pounds out of them. After a few seconds she realizes that part of the pounding isn’t the beat, but someone hitting the wall with a ferocious thud from next door. She quickly unplugs the speakers and yells ‘Sorry!’ before she slips her headphones over her ears and spends the rest of the rainy day lost in fantasies of the bloody demise of her new ex-husband – Alex-that-bastard.
That evening, as she sits behind the curtains, watching the parking lot follies through a thin sliver of the window, she sees her neighbor go out. No one bothers him; even the drug dealers don’t glance in his direction. He walks around the corner of a building and disappears into the wooded area behind the motel. She hears the thunder boom and looks up to the clouded sky as a light rain starts to come down. About a half an hour later he returns, soaked to the bone, his big black boots covered in mud. Again he walks to his door without a look from anyone, disappearing into his room without a word.
Days later, Marla realizes she has to brave the outside world to go for groceries and, at least, a news paper so that she can start to look for some kind of work. As she locks her door her neighbor comes around the corner of the building again, his dark, shaggy hair dripping from the rain. His black eyes glance up and he gives her a blank, unreadable look before he vanishes again into his sanctuary.
She thinks about him as she walks through the small, brightly-lit store – he seems to be the only other person staying at the motel long-term. He’s as solitary and anti-social as she is, so she wonders if he is also going through a difficult situation in his life. Marla ponders how he must be as depressed as she is – always wearing black: black trousers and shirt covered by a jacket, with the collar turned up that looks like a cross between a frock coat and a navy pea coat. His skin is vampire-pale and has long, artistic fingers and a large Roman nose; his features balanced out on his tall, thin frame. She imagines that he looks foreign; at least, he doesn’t look anything like her clean-cut, upper-class American ex-husband – Alex-that-bastard.
When Marla returns he is standing outside of his door, smoking a cigarette. She is still amazed that none of the parking lot vermin even seem to notice him – they call to her as she gets out of her car and quickly carry her bags to the door of her room. He watches her out of the corner of his eye as she fumbles with the key, trying to ignore the dealer who is crossing the parking lot as he yells for her. She slips inside and as she slides the bolt lock into place she hears the door next to hers close sharply, the dealer walking back and forth on the breezeway still hollering.
For the next few days she concentrates on job hunting, scouring the want ads and calling every single one that looks even remotely hopeful. Most of them tell the middle-aged woman that she need more experience or, at the very least, more recent experience. She begins to grow increasingly hopeless about her prospects. Marla is feeling all pent up, and, after rain for almost a week straight, the sun comes out to heat the humidity in the air until her room feels like a sauna.
Marla hasn’t opened the door for a long time and the fresh air smells wonderful, a breeze blowing the cool salt air in off the water. The parking lot is deserted in the mid-afternoon light, as all the night-dwelling rats who like to inhabit it are still in their cozy little beds, not even ready for their first fix of the day. As she lights a smoke she thinks that she sees the curtains twitch next door, and moments later her neighbor exits his room and leans languidly against the wall, his coat hanging open. He lights up, too, but says nothing; his longish hair hanging in his face as he blows clouds of smoke into the breeze. She decides that she could use some interesting company after the crap-tastic few weeks she’s had, and she also decides that he’s gonna be it.
“Hey, you wanna come over here and have a drink with me?” Marla asks, and for a moment he doesn’t acknowledge her question or even move. She pretends like his aloof reaction doesn’t bother her as she waits for an answer, prepared to go over to him and demand it if she has to.
“No…” he finally replies in a deeper voice than she expects. “I want you to come over here.” At first Marla only hears the beginning of his reply, the rejection burning a humiliated path across her cheeks, until she realizes that he’s not turning her down. He stares; his dark eyes very intense as he watches me silently lock my door and walk slowly towards him. Both of their cigarettes gone, he opens the door of his room, ushering her in.
He speaks little, even after she tells him how charming his Texas accent is – mostly he just listens to her bitch about the divorce and drinks profusely. Marla can only try her best to keep up and not think about Alex-that-bastard. They start out with a bottle of heavy red wine but move on to a burning whiskey once that is gone, each of them proving their alcoholism to the other. By the time he starts sloppily kissing the inebriated woman her head is spinning, and she passes out when he lays me back on the bed. When she wakes up some time later she is naked and he is laying limply on top of her, thrusting his sharp hips against her rounded ones, his half-hardness stabbing at her. She doesn’t have the energy to try to get him off of her, and more; after years of being married to Alex-that-bastard, she is used to just laying there and taking it. After a time he seems to decide that he’s not getting anywhere and he rolls off of her, taking a drink of whiskey out of the bottle before lighting a cigarette. He lays there smoking silently as she dresses and leaves without saying anything, going back to her room and taking a sleeping pill so that she won’t have to remember her dreams, and the shadow dolls.
The next day Marla starts drinking in the morning, only sobering up a bit because she takes a forced nap in the form of passing out after a wine cooler lunch. She takes a shower waking up because she can still smell the guy next door on her skin; his name lost somewhere in her alcoholic daze, but his actions all too painfully clear. She actually eats a tiny bit of food with her dinner wine then lays on the bed not really watching the cheesy horror movie with too many commercials that is playing on the flickering, ancient television. Just as she is passing out again a sharp rap on her door startles her off the bed and she am opening it to the cool night air before she is fully conscious.
Her neighbor pushes his way in; not that it takes much to bowl the drunken woman’s swaying form over, slamming the door behind him then dragging her to the bed and taking advantage of her, and she doesn’t resist. Over the next week the same scene plays itself out several times, with her neighbor forcing his way into her room and taking her with or without consent, neither of them are really sure. Marla doesn’t tell the manager mostly because the anticipation of the dark man’s attention toward her. It’s better than sitting around in her room all day, getting turned down for jobs and drinking herself into a stupor. Her money is steadily running out and she is not even qualified for the low-level jobs she’s been applying for, due to having been out of the work force for more than fifteen years. When the manager asks her for the rent and she doesn’t even feel bad when offers him sex instead. He takes the trade, happily telling her that they can do the same deal next week. Marla doesn’t really care – she saves a lot of money that way, and she won’t really feel anything unless her dark neighbor is pounding her, anyway.
The next day, more out of boredom than curiosity, she follows the dark man as he treks back into the woods behind their motel. After clumsily tracking him for about ten minutes it starts to rain and Marla loses him as he goes through a thicket. She tries to skirt around the outside and ends up not even knowing which direction the motel is, so she pulls a bottle of booze out of her ridiculously large purse and begins sucking it down.
Soon the setting sun is playing games with what she is seeing and her extreme intoxication is not helping. She’d thought that she would wait for her neighbor to come back and then follow him to the hotel, but now she sees his form in every shadow, the tall trees throwing ghostly images everywhere. She begins to walk in the direction that she believes the hotel to be, but the darkness is closing in everywhere. Stopping to listen and thinking that she can perhaps hear cars along the coastal highway, or maybe even the crashing of the ocean waves on the sharp rocks, Marla walks towards the noise simply because it’s something.
Finishing off the second bottle from her purse the drunken woman wildly flings it to the side and the explosive noise it makes shattering on a boulder causes the forest to seem even more deserted as night closes in. Then she thinks she sees him standing a few hundred yards ahead of her and she stumbles forward, tripping over tree roots and her own feet as she goes. The outline of his hair and coat flutter in the cool wind as she approaches, but he doesn’t move. She has to scramble up a small hill to get to him, and the stars sparkle around his silhouette as she looks up, willing him to turn around and see her.
As she comes up over the top of the hill she realizes too late that it is actually the edge of one of the high cliffs. Panicking, she frantically reaches out and screams for the dark man to help her as she skitters across the loose rocks on the ledge and then tumbles into the darkness.
Back at the motel, the man in the end room hears a scream as he comes out of the bathroom, rubbing the towel over his shower fresh hair. He turns up his TV so that he doesn’t have to listen to all the crazies in the parking lot, and begins thinking that it’s time to move on.