Everything I knew about Long Island I'd learned from Billy Joel songs: Real-estate novelists dined in Italian restaurants and boys from the wrong side of the tracks longed for uptown girls. Never mind that my husband, who grew up there, seemed to fit nowhere within the Piano Man's oeuvre. I had all the information I required.
One day at the dawn of the new millennium Steve was suddenly seized by a desire to revisit his boyhood haunts. Since I'd already dragged him to all my life's key historic spots ("Look! There's the hospital in Portland where I was born!") I figured he was overdue to be indulged.
This being the pre-smartphone era, I dutifully booted up Expedia. The Northeast was sort of an amorphous muddle in my mind, the reverse of the famous New Yorker cartoon that showed the world petering out into China once you crossed the Hudson. Wasn't Boston just a suburb of New York City? Weren't all the towns embedded in a quaint matrix of New England countryside? Billy Joel notwithstanding, I pictured sunny rambles through verdant countryside dotted with white-spired villages. We'd stop for antiques and apple cider, share blueberry pie with taciturn but warm-hearted locals, and stumble upon a lovely old inn run by Bob Newhart.
Steve stopped me while the hard drive was still whirring. "We'll be there before Memorial Day," he said. "We don't need reservations. Let's be spontaneous."
Long Island in the flesh did indeed conjure up an old TV show, but not the Newhart variety. The Archie Bunker houses of Queens fled past our rental car's windows as Steve dodged and swore at a torrent of traffic. Suburbanization gradually increased as we drove east, and by midday we reached a shade-dappled town called Huntington.
After a pleasant afternoon with cousins we needed a place for the night. We wound from highway to parkway to throughway to turnpike, but nothing presented itself. A gas station attendant finally pointed us toward a blowsy two-storey structure in the middle of a vast parking lot.
If you squinted you might have gotten a vague suggestion of Colonial architecture from the brick trim and the white weathervane-crowned steeple tacked onto the roof. But if you didn't squint the overall impression was the structural equivalent of a small-town homecoming queen fallen on hard times after a couple of bum husbands, and bitter at getting laid off after the auto-parts store closed.
At reception a doughey young woman with auburn roots and glistening acne looked up from a copy of Glamour.
"A room? Everything's booked. No, I mean the whole area. Long Island's a popular place. Uh, I guess I could give you our bridal suite. It's all we have left. $300 per night." We dragged our luggage up to the second floor, suitcases banging on the worn wooden steps. Steve fumbled with the key.
"Do you smell smoke?" "It's nothing," my husband grunted as the key at last slid home and the door swung open.
I am not one of those delicate sorts who swoons if someone lights a cigarette three blocks away. I grew up around smokers. My first summer job was in a late-1970s city engineering office so smogged by blue plumes coiling from the draftsmens' Kools that their loudest polyester shirts were nearly invisible on the far side of the room.
But the nicotine-saturated backdraft that poured out of the Bridal Suite would have felled Jean-Paul Sartre. The gouged, decades-old furniture, the peeling linoleum, the fly-carcass-speckled fluorescent light fixtures, all were tanned to various shades of ochre. R.J. Reynolds could have packaged and sold rolled-up swatches of the upholstery.
Without a word Steve grabbed our suitcases. We banged back down the stairs. Steve snatched back the credit card, piled me and the luggage back into the car and sped out of the parking lot in a hail of gravel.
By now it was getting dark on the Jericho Turnpike. Ahead, nearly obscured by the glare of oncoming headlights, a neon sign sputtered "Vacancy."
The quiet young woman behind the desk assured us that the motel was clean. "It used to belong to the state. Low-income housing. It was thoroughly renovated before the motel conversion."
We groped our way along a neat line of ancient bungalows illuminated by a single streetlight. Finding our unit, we opened the door. An acute stab of bleach and fluorescent lighting flashed out. Everything was indeed spotless, scrubbed raw as if by meth-addled Furies on work release. "It'll do," we said to each other, lobbing the suitcases onto a creaking twin bed. I fell asleep imagine the parkway's roar as crashing ocean surf.
Things seemed to improve the next morning. The tide of strip malls receded, revealing shoals of potato fields and islands of flowering dogwoods. Porsches and Mercedes crowded out Saturns and Subarus on the highway. We detoured into F. Scott Fitzgerald country along the North Shore, passing old mansions with white colonnades and new ones with towering arched entryways. We went for a short walk in a nature preserve filled with singing birds. We spent twenty minutes frantically brushing off the ticks we found creeping up our clothes.
As afternoon settled in we headed for the Hamptons. The week before the Memorial Day start of "the season" found the fabled enclave nearly deserted. We wandered past cypress battlements hiding mansions from commoners' gaze. Landscaping trucks rumbled by on otherwise deserted streets. We peered into the windows of closed shops, our reflections blurred by the cashmere and chintz and horsey wealth arrayed inside.
Now it was time to find another night's accommodation. "Riverhead," said Steve. "It's near here, but not snooty." We barreled back up the turnpike while darkness spread across the sky.
Just off an exit ramp a cheery chain motel beckoned. We cruised confidently into the driveway and up to reception. "I'm sorry," said the clerk. "We're completely booked. Long Island's really popular." "Is there anyplace else nearby?" I asked. The clerk winced. "There is," he said, "but I wouldn't go there."
"He just doesn't want to give his competition any credit," I said to Steve as we walked back to the car. "I'm sure it's fine."
The Greenwood Inn was set back from a secondary road in a dark grove of trees. A few lamps glowed feebly. We parked in the lightless gravel lot. A group of men lurked in a particularly dark corner. I was suddenly conscious of how the loudly the remote's chirp cut through the still air.
The reception office was suffused with a powerful smell of cooking: An oily, vaguely chickenish aroma with no obvious source. Intent on a portable television under the desk, a balding clerk in a dirty suit barely acknowledged us. "Sure," he grunted. "I'll give you our best room." In a scene straight from an old movie he took a metal key with a plastic-lozenge fob off a hook behind him. Scribbling our credit-card information on a pad, he pointed to the second storey. "Watch the stairs."
Under the lurkers' watchful gaze we unloaded our luggage and dragged it up a flight of splintered steps. The door creaked open to a room lit by a single overhead fixture. Somehow the chicken-cooking smell had intensified into the space, imbuing the air with an almost tangible greasiness. The carpet, which might have been red in some earlier decade, was a fantastic landscape of cigarette-burn craters, slashed valleys and threadbare basins. The bedsheets were merely the thinnest suggestion of tissue tucked under stained pillows. The blanket appeared to have been salvaged from the dumpster behind a medium-security prison. The floor yielded in places, spongy with dry rot. I flicked the bathroom light switch and got a lightning zap but no other illumination.
It was nearly midnight. Manhattan was a hundred miles away. We stared at each other. "Let's do this thing," said Steve. "Years from now we'll laugh about it."
Neither of us closed our eyes all night. We lay fully clothed on the bed as if our jeans and sweaters would somehow protect us from bugs and microbes. We breathed the chickeny air. We listened, tense and ready to spring into action, to the gravel crunching with nightlong comings and goings. Were those footsteps on the stairs? Was that a key scraping in the lock?
At last dawn filtered through the gray windows. We grabbed our suitcases and scrambled unshowered down the stairs. Relieved to find the rental car in one piece, we sped out of the parking lot and back onto the modern familiarity of the Long Island Expressway.
On the plane home we rubbed our sleepless sandpaper eyes and scratched at imagined bugs. The other passengers kept a respectful distance. Long Island fell away from the plane window. It was lovely; miles of forests and fields and sandy shores. Not a motel to be seen.
It's years later now, and Steve was right. I do laugh at the experience. I learned that even Billy Joel can't sum up a place in song. And that spontaneity is vastly overrated.