Motel 6

We stared up at the patchy roof of the Motel 6 waiting for my sister’s flamingo pink flip-flop to come down.  Shar showed me how high she could throw it and I watched in awe as it bounced off the roof, back into the sky, and into her hands each time. Until one day she threw it too high and we waited for it to come down. It never did.

We saw my dad walking up the sidewalk, back from working construction, carrying a five dollar pizza for dinner. Shar looked down at me, her dark brown eyes filling with worry. A rosy patch in between her eyebrows began to peek through her caramel skin, a birthmark that only appears when she’s mad or scared. I helped her hop over puddles, towards our room, before we got caught.

For a summer my family lived in a Motel 6 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In between a laundry mat and a Burger King that is now a Denny’s. We lived paycheck to paycheck, and as my mom put it, “sometimes life throws things at you that you can’t control.” She continues to say this whenever that summer creeps up in her memory. Her voice soft as if she is trying to convince herself that these words of hers are good enough to be true. The morning before we settled at the motel we drove to a storage place, and I said goodbye to a box of my toys, clothes, and even my electric blue bicycle decorated with rust. We only brought things to the motel that my sister and I “needed, not wanted,” my dad repeated, trying to keep the two of us calm about our new home.

There’s not much that I remember when I was young, but memories of that summer are etched in me. And maybe when years pass I can say more to people about it in casual conversation instead of “one time my family used to live in a motel, but we don’t anymore.” And they will say “sorry” or give me a sympathetic look, and I will say “it’s okay, it wasn’t as bad as you think.” And even though it really wasn’t that bad, I still feel like I should have a grand philosophical statement to give them or even a defined conclusion of that time, the way my mom has. But that just hasn’t happened yet.

I was only five during that summer in the motel.  Every day I played hide and seek in the parking lot with Shar. We hid underneath old mini vans and behind giant pots holding fake flowers that I watched the portly gardener clean every morning. Our mom walked us to the nearest library in town about eight blocks away. Shar disciplined herself to choose one book each visit, one with many chapters to keep her occupied for a week. I still gravitated towards the picture books.  I lost count of how many times I checked out The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Shar and I took turns getting ice from the machine in the lobby and watched Sleepy Hollow with Johnny Depp on basic cable every Friday and Saturday night. I grew familiar with the ugly, green wallpaper peeling at its edges, the thick blinds that were different shades of white covering the only window in the room, and the two taut queen beds I would jump back and forth on, pretending that the crunchy tan carpet was lava. It seemed like our own little paradise.

“We can’t just magically buy you flip-flops whenever you feel like throwing them on roofs,” my dad lectured us, sitting on the side of one of the beds when he found out our secret.  His voice was tired and low. I remember watching him close his eyes and as he rubbed the concrete dust off his black skin. “They may have been cheap, but your mother and I work hard to give you those things.” In the corner of the room, my mom tried to scrounge up enough money at the dingy wooden table for a new pair of sandals for Shar.

That night I stared between the space the blinds created through the window and searched for the flip-flop with the help of the moonlight.  I wondered if it would ever come down. It was then that I realized that we were not on a vacation like the other people I saw coming and going from this place. A new car would take the last ones place each day in the parking lot that I played in.  Rolling suitcases on their way to be stacked into trunks told me another person was leaving. This was just one more thing that life threw at us, I thought, a thing punishing my sister and me for throwing something at it first.

That summer in the motel I was turning six and all I wanted was a floral diary and pen set I had seen in Meijer.  I gazed at it through the packaging, memorizing everything about it. The pink polka dots aligning the spin of the diary and the little yellow-haired girl smiling in the corner of the package.  I wished I were that little girl until my mom broke my train of thought and told me it was time to check out and leave the store.

I wanted it, but I didn’t ask for it. I was learning not to ask for things I couldn’t have.  I don’t know why I was drawn to it. I longed to write and doodle whatever I could in those soft pink sheets of paper bound together, words that would be for my eyes only. I wanted or, as my dad taught me, needed to keep my memories safe and sound in the realms of my own comfort, away from my discoveries of the reality.

When we got back from Meijer, I sat next to my sister near the air conditioner while she read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  She half-listened to me as I explained the details of the diary. Right down to the gold lock and key attached to the diary, to the thin layer of glitter dusted over the pen over the rattle of the vents.

Once in a while, I pass that Motel 6 in the car when I am back home. Every time, I catch myself glancing at the roof before I turn the corner, still searching for a spec of pink dangling on asphalt shingles. But I never stop the car. I keep moving. Past the laundry mat, past the Motel 6, and finally, past that new Denny’s before I turn the corner. A part of me worries that one day, I will drive by without turning my head, not even tempted to look at the red and blue logo in my rearview mirror. Because it will always be the place that cut my five year old innocence a smidge smaller, but also a place that made me a little stronger.

That morning of my sixth birthday, I woke up to my father kissing me on the head, whispering “Happy Birthday” in my ear, trying not to wake Shar beside me. With half opened eyes, I watched him in his neon orange vest walk down the sidewalk to work while the sun and the moon were present together in the dawn sky. When I couldn’t see him anymore, I tip-toed over to the corner table to find a plastic bag resting on top. I took out a pair of orange flip-flops, Shar’s size, and the diary set. As the sun rose, I sat holding the diary and pen, still in their plastic packaging.


DeLaynna Corley is a junior at Columbia College Chicago and will be graduating in the spring of 2016. She is majoring in Creative writing: Nonfiction with a minor in television writing. When she is not in Chicago for school, she lives at home in Ypsilanti, Michigan with her parents and older sister. This is her first creative nonfiction publication.