On a Christmas visit to her pink house in Boca Raton, Fla., when I was 34, I had a fight with my mother, who'd been drinking all evening. It began with me asking her not to wake me and my girlfriend up again by emptying the dishwasher at 4:30 in the morning. It ended with both sides shouting, "Fuck you!" As my girlfriend Sharon and I lay awake after the fight, I promised her that the next year we'd stay at a hotel. My heart was in my mouth when, months later, I called my mother to tell her that we had bought our Christmas tickets, but wouldn't be staying at her house. "OK," she said thinly. Injury drew her voice taut and glassy. "Thanks for letting me know."
After flying into Fort Lauderdale on Christmas Eve, we drove our rented car to Boca Raton's Seaside Lodge, a motel with the seedy charm of a '50s diner. Before we left for my mother's house, Sharon asked the clerk about the little kitchen that communicated between our room and the next: the lock on our kitchen door was broken. "But no one ever goes in there," said the clerk. "Don't worry."
We spent a perfectly civilized evening with my mother and sister. Both my mother and I carefully avoided mentioning the motel. After dinner, we sang carols together over eggnog, and when my mother began to repeat the instructions for slathering the Christmas roast with mayonnaise for a third time, Sharon and I took our leave.
"That was so painless," I told Sharon on the drive to the Seaside Lodge.
"Better late than never," she said.
A few hours later, I woke up in the dark. Sharon was sitting upright on the bed beside me, quietly holding my hand. "I didn't want to startle you," she whispered.
"What is it?" I asked. "What's that light in the corner?"
"It's the kitchen. There are two men and a woman in there," Sharon said. "They're yelling and laughing and smacking things around. They sound drunk."
"And they could walk in any time because we can't lock the door," I said.
"Exactly," she whispered. "This is how long murder scenes in Quentin Tarantino movies start. I want to leave. And I don't want them to know we're in here."
We packed in silence, gently climbing around each other, aided only by the kitchen light etching the doorframe. Loud, sloppy laughter burst in intermittently from next door, and our room began to fill with cigarette smoke. "No one ever goes in there," Sharon hissed. "Don't worry. That clerk totally lied." She brought the phone book to the door and, reading by the kitchen light, silently ripped out the pages listing local hotels.
"Don't you want to just change rooms?" I asked.
"I don't think we can," she whispered. "I called the front desk and no one answered."
Another belt of laughter shot out of the next room as we padded away with our suitcases. When I looked back, I saw a knobby, red-knuckled hand resting on our neighbors' doorframe, and beyond the open door, a small plastic Christmas tree swathed in tinsel. "They live here!" Sharon mouthed. "Maybe they're harmless," she said when we walked out of earshot, her ordinary voice loud in the cricketing silence. "But I don't want to find out."
The hotel lobby, we discovered, lay dark behind a locked door. FRONT DESK CLOSED FOR CHRISTMAS, read a sign. It was 2005, and neither of us had a cell phone: As I drove away from the Seaside Lodge, Sharon plotted hotel addresses from her phone book pages onto our rental car map. "Look, the King David Hotel," she said, pointing to a big ad bordered in a braid of Greek keys. "Who else is going to have rooms on Christmas Eve? And besides, I love this: For a Hamishe Atmosphere."
"Cute," I said, starting to feel sticky, spiderweb tendrils of unslept sleep wrap around my face. "What's hamishe?"
"Homey," she explained, giving my leg a squeeze.
I slowed the car to a stop beside a pay phone at which a young white man stood, urgently engaged. "Should we try to call hotels from here?" I asked.
"Hmm," Sharon said, pointing. The kid had a cell phone in one hand and a beeper clipped to his back pocket. What was he doing at a pay phone at 2 in the morning?
Sharon and I looked at each other. "We don't need to call ahead," she decided. "Let's just drive."
We tried a hotel where the receptionist sat behind a bulletproof plastic shield. No, they had no room, but she would call around for us. There was a room at the Boca Resort available for $600 a night, she offered.
"Thanks," said Sharon. We drove away. "Now we know how much people are willing to pay not to stay with their parents over Christmas," she cracked.
"Ha," I said. I didn't like how sleepy I felt while driving. My mind was moving slowly and my eyelids felt cold.
"Christmas Eve," the heavily tanned man at the next hotel clucked. He wore an aloha shirt and a gold chain. "Sorry, girls. I think you'll find every place is booked up around here."
Sharon and I looked at each other glumly.
"You see, it's a Boca thing," he explained. "People want you to visit, but they don't want you dirtying up their towels. I know this because I dated a Boca woman once."
"What do you think we should do, baby?" I asked, as we drove away. "Should we just admit defeat and go stay at my mom's?"
"That seems like the worst of both worlds," Sharon said. "Having her upset because you wanted to stay in a hotel and then still having to stay with her when she's drunk? Let's try this next place up ahead," she said.
We rolled up to a hotel that declared itself The Boca Raton Plaza Under New Management. "Do you have any rooms available?" Sharon asked.
"Yes, we have one of our Royal Palm rooms available—"
Yes! I thought. He said yes!
No! I thought. He's going to say $700! And at that moment I was so tired that the idea of just charging it anyway bubbled through my mind.
"For $79.95 plus tax," he concluded.
I took Sharon's hand. "Thank god," she said. "Let's do it."
When we opened the door to our room, the marbled floors of the vestibule and bathroom shone. Tasteful prints of palms hung on the walls. "It's a Christmas miracle," I said, and fell dead asleep.
The next morning, as I pointed the car toward my mother's house, I caught sight of the blue-and-white hotel sign once again, struck by something familiar in the braid of Greek keys bordering The Boca Raton Plaza Under New Management. "Hey, Sharon. Look."
"Oh!" she cried. "We found the King David after all!"
"We found the hamishe atmosphere!" Laughing, we goofed a high five as I kept my eyes on the road. "Thank you for coming with me for Christmas, Sharon," I said. "I know this isn't really a vacation."
"No," she said. "It's not. But I love you."
* * *
None of the nighthawks we encountered that Christmas Eve were living out the holiday myth of a nuclear family, cozily setting out stockings for Santa Claus: not me and Sharon, not the rowdies next door, not the drug dealer at the pay phone, not the hotel clerks, not even my mother, living alone. That shiny myth had blinded me to two truths: One, I liked having a break from my mother at the end of the day. And two — even more heretical — I think she liked having a break from me. As the gold-chained hotel clerk had explained, "People don't want you dirtying up their towels."
Sharon and I wanted a room where we could sleep through the night free from drunken incursions. My mother wanted to feel comfortable in her own home, free from the obligation to tiptoe around. During the fight that had ended in "fuck you," my mother had begun shouting sarcastically, "I live, so I'm sorry! I'm sorry I live!" That's what we both wanted; that's what all of us misfits want: to live, without having to say we're sorry.
* * *
When we unwrapped our gifts on Christmas morning, I opened a card from my mother, gasping when a hundred-dollar bill fluttered out. Dear Ellis, she had written in her careful cursive. I'm sorry it's hard for you to stay here. I hope this helps with the hotel.
"Thank you, Mama," I said, near tears.
She embraced me carefully. "Thank you for being here today," she said.
My mother died suddenly two years ago. I found that card among the letters from her I'd saved. I'm glad I kept it. I'm glad we knew enough at the time to hold each other a moment longer.