Rock-a-Way
by Jeanne Heuving
 
 

Some of the happiest times Jonathon and I spent together were our vacations when we shared the same dwelling. In the several years we were together we never managed to live together, so our vacations had to make up for a lot of indecision and loneliness. We were always trying to find the perfect place where we could exist in something resembling conjugal happiness. We would trade off certain attributes for others. For instance, if there were a fireplace, we would relinquish our desires for a swimming pool, and vice versa. For a while we were determined to stay in fifties motels on little traveled highways, with swimming pools in the shape of natural lakes and ponds. But wherever we stayed, we always isolated a certain quality or feature that recommended it for our unique use.

One of our favorite motels was in a small, little visited town, where the city hall, the church, and several houses were built out of pinkish rocks from the river running through the dry, sage brush country. The motel paralleled the river and consisted of a row of stucco units joined together by arched carports. On our first stay there, exiting out the back screen door, we were surprised to find a strip of well-watered and meticulously cut green grass with picnic tables and lounge chairs, pink, plastic flamingoes, and a croquet set. Since we were already quite pleased with what we could see of our motel from the highway, we were simply delighted when we descended the few wooden steps into yet, a whole other world.

This vacation, since it was August and we wanted a place on the ocean where neither of us had been, we reserved a cabin at the town of Rock-A-Way, sight unseen. Looking on a map at a part of the ocean known for its large, grass-covered dunes and sandy beaches, we hit on the name of Rock-A-Way, which was our kind of name. In order to reserve accommodations, we went to the downtown library and found Rock-A-Way in the yellow pages for Myrtle Gray County. Our first choice was a resort on the outside of town which advertised its log cabins as being spaciously nestled amongst the dunes. Unfortunately, these were all booked up, so we ended up making reservations at Rock-A-Way Resort for a mere $35 per night--a rate we hoped boded simplicity and not something awful. We had been drawn by the single line of unobtrusive type listing Rock-A-Way Resort on pages otherwise cluttered with multiple types and sketches--motels with colonial lamplights and hotels, the size and magnificence of villas.

Our chance pick turned out almost as bad as we had feared. Although the group of several nearly identical cabins joined by boardwalks appeared charming enough, they had not been painted or thoroughly cleaned for sometime. The ocean could be viewed only from the far corner of our cabin, as a monstrosity of a three-story house with several modern additions sat squarely in front of the Resort. When we had phoned about accommodations, an older woman had recommended the view from Rock-A-Way Resort as quite nice and had answered our question about a fireplace with impatience. What would we want with a fireplace in August, anyway? We knew full well the inclination of weather on this strip of coast and how one might well want a fireplace in August, but were strangely encouraged by her response. Her assurance invalidated our very request, promising us something, or rather someone, far more real than our own blind groping for suitable accommodations could possibly produce.

I suppose, if we had tried a little harder, we might have been able to talk ourselves into Rock-A-Way Resort, for it had a particular kind of craziness and charm. But the cabin was finally just too dirty and musty to be enjoyed on any real level. Its pale chartreuse walls were dingy with cooking grease and spotted with mold. The furniture looked as if it had all been bought second or third hand--a mixture of old throw-a-ways and K-Mart specials. The loose, conical pole lamps could only be aimed in the direction of gravity, at the cracked linoleum floor. The few extras made one wish whoever had, hadn't. A multi-colored knit covered an extra roll of toilet paper, and a paper shade imprinted with the design of a Tiffany colored-glass lamp covered the single bulb hanging from the ceiling.

One of our first vacation activities was an attempt to make our cabin a little more livable. We covered the torn, brown tweed couch with our plaid, Pendleton blanket and deposited the toilet paper cover and the Tiffany lamp shade in the closet, along with the bedspread, a synthetic quilt with pink roses. Throwing the electrified clump of pink synthetic stuff into the closet, we began laughing and couldn't stop. We were trying to make this ugly place a little less ugly, and couldn't control ourselves in face of the wreck we found ourselves in. We had traveled almost a full day to come to an unfamiliar place and were now making it over as much as we could to reflect ourselves.

The far corner of the room from which we could see the ocean was also the far corner of the bed. Only by lying very close to each other and butting our heads against the wall could we view the ocean at the same time--a small swatch of blue or gray corrugation, depending on the weather. As we gazed at the ocean, our vision unavoidably ran smack dab into the large, three-story house, its brown shakes swimming in and out of focus. The creases in the wood blurred and then became distinct, just as waves on a lake become more visible when a sudden breeze crosses over them.

Almost the entire town of Rock-A-Way was in the same dilapidated condition as Rock-A-Way Resort. Laid out on a grid, the houses and resort facilities stacked up in jagged rows--in contrast to the generous, flowing curve of the beach. In looking back from the beach at the town, it appeared highly irregular, piling up where the dunes ended, seemingly without depth--a virtual racket of angles and colors. Walking along the beach, we felt able to travel large distances, effortlessly. But in town, we could proceed only with difficulty over the cracked, moss-lined sidewalks with their skate boards and dolls, never quite making it to the end of the town, to the gas station that was also a restaurant and the hardware store which sold maternity wear.

There were many lots for sale in rather odd places, which contributed to the disorganized and run-down feeling of the town. Between the two story wooden schoolhouse fronting the sea and the highway were a row of lots for sale or lease. Directly across from Rock-A-Way Resort, a house had burned down. A For Sale sign had been stuck in the middle of the sandy lot, amidst the sweet peas and charred wood. Beneath the For Sale, a telephone number was printed so tinily that one had to walk well onto the lot to read the irregular digits.

During our week at Rock-A-Way, the weather was generally bad, so we spent far more time indoors than we would have liked. One morning after making love, we scrunched ourselves into the far corner of the bed, so that we could view the ocean in tandem. Tangled in our sheets, when after our sweaty love-making we might have preferred to lie apart, we spied a small ship, just as it came into the our small vista of ocean. In a matter of moments, it sailed the entire width of the gray swatch just then turning blue, and left the frame. I was surprised by how simply and easily this happened, and instantly felt refreshed. With considerable happiness, I rose from the bed to make us a large breakfast of bacon and eggs.

But the occasions for a true and simple happiness were rare. Although we seldom argued outright, we were at some remove from happiness, or rather what I gather people would call happiness. Even though we were determined to stay together, to be true to our selection of one another as mates, we seemed to avoid each other. It was not that we did not talk or share our innermost dreams, but that these seemed beside the point. It was as if our attention was elsewhere and never here, as if we were trying to kiss, to place our mouths firmly on each others' mouths, but that the wooly crew necks of our sweaters kept pushing themselves up over our chins, getting in the way.

Our one actual altercation at Rock-A-Way occurred surprisingly after seeing the ship on the horizon and our large, healthy breakfast. I had brought an anthology of contemporary poetry with me, and early on during our stay I had found a poem which held a particular fascination for me, Russell Edson's "A Performance at Hog Theatre":

  There was once a hog theater
  where hogs performed as men might
  had men been hogs.
  One hog said
  I will be a hog in a field which has found a mouse
  which is being eaten by the same hog
  which is in the field
  and which has found the mouse;
  which I am performing as my contribution
  to the performer's art.
  Oh let's just be hogs, cried an old hog.
  And so the hogs streamed out of the theater
  crying
        only hogs
            only hogs.
The last lines of the poem struck me as immeasurably sad. The hogs, possessed of only their own hog skins, were streaming out into the black night, leaving behind the colorful environs of their theatre. I don't know why I was affected so by the poem, except that I was always looking for poems to affect me, and the old hog's directive turned lament was doubly sad, since the decision to leave the theater seemed both his own lonely decision to leave, and somehow thrust upon him.

Throughout our week at Rock-A-Way, I frequently repeated the line, "only hogs, only hogs," to Jonathon. We might be lying on the beach on one of the few sunny afternoons, almost asleep, and I would turn over and murmur in his face, "only hogs, only hogs." Or once after several hours of being trapped indoors by the rain, I began jumping on our bed, falling down in laughter, snorting, "only hogs, only hogs." In repeating it, the feeling I first had in reading the poem began to recede, although something of the sadness persisted, becoming, if anything, more intractable.

That morning I began on it again. Hugging the back of Jonathon's shoulders as he sat reading at the kitchen table, I placed my chin on his head, whispering, "only hogs, only hogs." But this time instead of playing along or feigning irritation as he usually did, he moved his body away with considerable annoyance. I felt my chin slip from his silky hair. My elbows gave way to sudden space.

Perhaps because we had just genuinely enjoyed ourselves, he needed to reject this compulsive and repetitive behavior on my part. Or perhaps he was looking over his photography books on Diane Arbus and Edward Weston he didn't want to be interrupted. I was hurt that what had begun in fun was now becoming an unhappiness between us. Taking out my anthology of poetry, I laid down on the bed to read, expecting that he would look over in apology and say, "only hogs, only hogs." When he seem more determined than ever to ignore me, I left for a walk on the beach.

Whether it was a matter of weeks or of months after we returned from Rock-A-Way, Martin and I did break up. It may have been as much as a year, or Rock-A-Way may have occurred sometime in the middle of our relationship. In looking back, it seems neither distant nor close, but simply there--like all the mish mash arbitrariness of the town itself. When I seek the reasons for our break up, I can understand how the whole thing quit working one day. But when I think of the actual events, I am not certain how any one thing ever passes into the next.

One of my strongest and most pervasive memories of Rock-A-Way is or a particular kind of yellow light, which in retrospect I envision as suffusing our time at Rock-A-Way and our entire relationship. I suppose the actual source for the light was the ceramic lamp on the end table beside the bed. Flowing from inside a stained, torn shade, the light bounced up into the dingy corners of the cabin, imparting a yellowish tint to everything that it touched. The light falsified and made unreal, like indigestion or a misplaced interior sense, whatever we were looking at--the black print of our books, the expressions on our faces.