From Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives

Originally published in THE NEW YORKER (April 6 2009)

Ever since he and his wife had separated and she had moved with their son to Southern California, he’d flown out every three weeks to visit the boy. He was living the very nightmare he’d tried not to imagine when deciding to marry and have a child: that it wouldn’t work out, they would split up, and he would be forced to spend long weekends in a motel, taking his son to faux-upscale chain restaurants, cineplexes, and amusement parks.

He usually visited for three to five days and stayed at the same motel, an old motor court that had been bought and remodelled by one of the big franchises. At first the place wasn’t so bad. The Continental breakfast included fresh fruit and little boxes of name-brand cereals and batter with which you could make your own waffles on a double waffle iron right there in the lobby. The syrup came in small plastic containers from which you pulled back a foil lid and voilà, it was a pretty good waffle. There was juice and decent coffee. Still, of course, it was depressing, a bleak place in which to do one’s part in raising a child. With its courtyard surrounded by two stories of identical rooms, and excepting the lack of guard towers and the presence of a swimming pool, it followed the same architectural model as a prison.

But Loomis’s son liked it, so they continued to stay there, even though Loomis would rather have moved on to a better place.

He arrived in San Diego for his April visit, picked up the rental car, and drove north on I-5. Traffic wasn’t bad except where it always was, between Del Mar and Carlsbad. Of course, it was never “good.” Their motel sat right next to the 5, and the roar and rush of it never stopped. You could step out onto the balcony at three in the morning and it’d be just as roaring and rushing with traffic as it had been six hours before.

This was to be one of his briefer visits. He’d been to a job interview the day before, Thursday, and had another one on Tuesday. He wanted to make the most of the weekend, which meant doing very little besides just being with his son. Although he wasn’t very good at doing that. Generally, he sought distractions from his ineptitude as a father. He stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of bourbon, and tucked it into his travel bag before driving up the hill to the house where his wife and son lived. The house was owned by a retired marine friend of his wife’s family. His wife and son lived rent-free in the basement apartment.

When Loomis arrived, the ex-marine was on his hands and knees in the flower bed, pulling weeds. He glared sideways at Loomis for a moment and muttered something, his face a mask of disgust. He was a widower who clearly hated Loomis and refused to speak to him. Loomis was unsettled that someone he’d never even been introduced to could hate him so much.

His son came to the door of the apartment by himself, as usual. Loomis peered past the boy into the little apartment, which was bright and sunny for a basement (only in California, he thought). But there was no sign of his estranged wife. She had conspired with some part of her nature to become invisible. Loomis hadn’t laid eyes on her in nearly a year. She called out from somewhere in another room, “Bye! I love you! See you on Monday!”

“O.K., love you, too,” the boy said and trudged after Loomis, dragging his backpack of homework and a change of clothes. “Bye, Uncle Bob,” the boy said to the ex-marine. Uncle Bob! The ex-marine stood up, gave the boy a small salute, then he and the boy exchanged high fives.

After Loomis checked in at the motel, they went straight to their room and watched television for a while. Lately, his son had been watching cartoons made in the Japanese anime style. Loomis thought the animation was wooden and amateurish. He didn’t get it at all. The characters were drawn as angularly as origami, which he supposed was appropriate and maybe even intentional, if the influence was Japanese. But it seemed irredeemably foreign. His son sat propped against several pillows, harboring such a shy but mischievous grin that Loomis had to indulge him.

He made a drink and stepped out onto the balcony to smoke a cigarette. Down by the pool, a woman with long, thick black hair—it was stiffly unkempt, like a madwoman’s in a movie—sat in a deck chair with her back to Loomis, watching two children play in the water. The little girl was nine or ten, and the boy was older, maybe fourteen. The boy teased the girl by splashing her face with water, and when she protested in a shrill voice he leapt over and dunked her head. She came up gasping and began to cry. Loomis was astonished that the woman, who he assumed was the children’s mother, displayed no reaction. Was she asleep?

The motel had declined steadily in the few months that Loomis had been staying there, like a moderately stable person drifting and sinking into the lassitude of depression. Loomis wanted to help, find some way to speak to the managers and the other employees, to say, “Buck up, don’t just let things go all to hell,” but he felt powerless against his own inclinations.

He lit a second cigarette to go with the rest of his drink. A few other people walked up and positioned themselves around the pool’s apron, but none got into the water with the two quarrelling children. There was something feral about them, anyone could see. The woman with the wild black hair continued to sit in her pool chair as if asleep or drugged. The boy’s teasing of the girl had become steadily rougher, and the girl was sobbing now. Still, the presumptive mother did nothing. Someone went in to complain. One of the managers came out and spoke to the woman, who immediately, but without getting up from her deck chair, shouted to the boy, “All right, God damn it!” The boy, smirking, climbed from the pool, leaving the girl standing in waist-deep water, sobbing and rubbing her eyes with her fists. The woman stood up then and walked toward the boy. There was something off about her clothes, burnt-orange Bermuda shorts and a men’s lavender oxford shirt. And they didn’t seem to fit right. The boy, like a wary stray dog, watched her approach. She snatched a lock of his wet black hair, pulled his face to hers, and said something, gave his head a shake and let him go. The boy went over to the pool and spoke to the girl. “Come on,” he said. “No,” the girl said, still crying. “You let him help you!” the woman shouted, startling the girl into letting the boy take her hand. Loomis was fascinated, a little bit horrified.

Turning back toward her chair, the woman looked up to where he stood on the balcony. She had an astonishing face, broad and long, divided by a great, curved nose, dominated by a pair of large, dark, sunken eyes that seemed blackened by blows or some terrible history. Such a face, along with her immense, thick mane of black hair, made her look like a troll. Except that she was not ugly. She looked more like a witch, the cruel mockery of beauty and seduction. The oxford shirt was mostly unbuttoned, nearly spilling out a pair of full, loose, mottled-brown breasts.

“What are you looking at!” she shouted, very loudly from deep in her chest. Loomis stepped back from the balcony railing. The woman’s angry glare changed to something like shrewd assessment, and then dismissal. She shooed her two children into one of the downstairs rooms.

After taking another minute to finish his drink and smoke a third cigarette, to calm down, Loomis went back inside and closed the sliding glass door behind him.

His son was on the bed, grinning, watching something on television called “Code Lyoko.” Loomis tried to watch it with him for a while, but got restless. He wanted a second, and maybe stronger, drink.

“Hey,” he said. “How about I just get some burgers and bring them back to the room?”

The boy glanced at him and said, “That’d be O.K.”

Loomis got a sack of hamburgers from McDonald’s, some fries, a Coke. He made a second drink, then a third, while his son ate and watched television. They went to bed early.

“What does your mom wear to work?” he asked.

The boy gave him a look that would have been ironic if he’d been a less compassionate child.

“Clothes?” the boy said.

“O.K.,” Loomis said. “Like a swimsuit? Does she go to work in a swimsuit?”

“Are you O.K.?” the boy said.

Loomis was taken aback by the question.

“Me?” he said.

They walked along the beach, neither going into the water. Loomis enjoyed collecting rocks. The stones on the beach here were astounding. He marvelled at one that resembled an ancient war club. The handle fit perfectly into his palm. From somewhere over the water, a few miles south, they could hear the stuttering thud of a large helicopter’s blades. Most likely a military craft from the Marine base farther north.

Maybe he wasn’t O.K. Loomis had been to five therapists since separating from his wife: one psychiatrist, one psychologist, three counsellors. The psychiatrist had tried him on Paxil, Zoloft, and Wellbutrin for depression, and lorazepam for anxiety. Only the lorazepam had helped, but with that he’d overslept too often and lost his job. The psychologist, once she learned that Loomis was drinking almost half a bottle of booze every night, became fixated on getting him to join A.A. and seemed to forget altogether that he was there to figure out whether he indeed no longer loved his wife. And why he had cheated on her. Why he had left her for another woman when the truth was that he had no faith that the new relationship would work out any better than the old one. The first counsellor seemed sensible, but Loomis made the mistake of visiting her together with his wife, and when she suggested that maybe their marriage was kaput his wife had walked out. The second counsellor was actually his wife’s counsellor, and Loomis thought she was an idiot. Loomis suspected that his wife liked the second counsellor because she did nothing but nod and sympathize and give them brochures. He suspected that his wife simply didn’t want to move out of their house, which she liked far more than Loomis did, and which possibly she liked more than she liked Loomis. When she realized that divorce was inevitable, she shifted gears, remembered that she wanted to surf, and sold the house before Loomis was even aware it was on the market, so he had to sign. Then it was Loomis who mourned the loss of the house. He visited the third counsellor with his girlfriend, who seemed constantly angry that his divorce hadn’t yet come through. He and the girlfriend both gave up on that counsellor because he seemed terrified of them for some reason they couldn’t fathom. Loomis was coming to the conclusion that he couldn’t fathom anything; the word seemed appropriate to him, because most of the time he felt as if he were drowning and couldn’t find the bottom or the surface of this murky body of water he had fallen, or dived, into.

He wondered if this was why he didn’t want to dive into the crashing waves of the Pacific, as he certainly would have when he was younger. His son didn’t want to because, he said, he’d rather surf.

“But you don’t know how to surf,” Loomis said.

“Mom’s going to teach me as soon as she’s good enough at it,” the boy said.

“But don’t you need to be a better swimmer before you try to surf?” Loomis had a vague memory of the boy’s swimming lessons, which maybe hadn’t gone so well.

“No,” the boy said.

“I really think,” Loomis said, and then he stopped speaking, because the helicopter he’d been hearing, one of those large twin-engine birds that carry troops in and out of combat—a Chinook—had come abreast of them, a quarter mile or so off the beach. Just as Loomis looked up to see it, something coughed or exploded in one of its engines. The helicopter slowed, then swerved, with the slow grace of an airborne leviathan, toward the beach where they stood. In a moment it was directly over them. One of the men in it leaned out of a small opening on its side, frantically waving, but the people on the beach, including Loomis and his son, beaten by the blast from the blades and stung by sand driven up by it, were too shocked and confused to run. The helicopter lurched back out over the water with a tremendous roar and a deafening, rattling whine from the engines. There was another loud pop, and black smoke streamed from the forward engine as the Chinook made its way north again, seeming hobbled. Then it was gone, lost in the glare over the water. A bittersweet burnt-fuel smell hung in the air. Loomis and his son stood there among the others on the beach, speechless. One of two very brown young surfers in board shorts and crewcuts grinned and nodded at the clublike rock in Loomis’s hand.

Loomis’s son, looking embarrassed, moved off as if he were with someone else in the crowd, not Loomis.

They stayed in Carlsbad for an early dinner at Pizza Port. The place was crowded with people who’d been at the beach all day, although Loomis recognized no one they’d seen when the helicopter had nearly crashed and killed them all. He’d expected everyone in there to know about it, to be buzzing about it over beer and pizza, amazed, exhilarated. But it was as if it hadn’t happened.

The long rows of picnic tables and booths were filled with young parents and their hyperkinetic children, who kept jumping up to get extra napkins or forks or to climb into the seats of the motorcycle video games. Their parents flung arms after them like inadequate lassos or pursued them and herded them back. The stools along the bar were occupied by young men and women who apparently had no children and who were attentive only to one another and to choosing which of the restaurant’s many microbrews to order. In the corner by the rest rooms, the old surfers, regulars here, gathered to talk shop and knock back the stronger beers, the double-hopped and the barley wines. Their graying hair frizzled and tied in ponytails or dreads or chopped in stiff clumps dried by salt and sun. Their faces leather brown. Gnarled toes jutting from their flip-flops and worn sandals like assortments of dry-roasted cashews, Brazil nuts, ginger root.

Loomis felt no affinity for any of them. There wasn’t a single person in the entire place with whom he felt a thing in common—other than being, somehow, human. Toward the parents he felt a bitter disdain. On the large TV screens fastened to the restaurant’s brick walls surfers skimmed down giant waves off Hawaii, Tahiti, Australia.

He gazed at the boy, his son. The boy looked just like his mother. Thick bright-orange hair, untamable. They were tall, stemlike people with long limbs and that thick hair blossom on top. Loomis had called them his rosebuds. “Roses are red,” his son would respond, delightedly indignant, when he was smaller. “There are orange roses,” Loomis would reply. “Where?” “Well, in Indonesia, I think. Or possibly Brazil.” “No!” his son would shout, breaking down into giggles on the floor. He bought them orange roses on the boy’s birthday that year.

The boy wasn’t so easily amused anymore. He waited glumly for their pizza order to be called out. They’d secured a booth vacated by a smallish family.

“You want a Coke?” Loomis said. The boy nodded absently. “I’ll get you a Coke,” Loomis said.

He got the boy a Coke from the fountain, and ordered a pint of strong pale ale from the bar for himself.

By the time their pizza came, Loomis was on his second ale. He felt much better about all the domestic chaos around them in the restaurant. It was getting on the boy’s nerves, though. As soon as they finished their pizza, he asked Loomis if he could go stand outside and wait for him there.

“I’m almost done,” Loomis said.

“I’d really rather wait outside,” the boy said. He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked away.

“O.K.,” Loomis said. “Don’t wander off. Stay where I can see you.”

“I will.”

And what did it mean, in any case, that he couldn’t even carry on a conversation with his son? How hard could that be? To hear him try, you’d think they didn’t know each other at all, that he was a friend of the boy’s father, watching him for the afternoon or something. He got up to leave, but hesitated, then gulped down the rest of his second beer.

His son stood with hunched shoulders, waiting.

“Ready to go back to the motel?” Loomis said. There was plenty of light left in the day for another walk on the beach, but he wasn’t up to it.

The boy nodded. They walked back to the car in silence.

“Did you like your pizza?” Loomis said when they were in the car.

“Sure. It was O.K.”

Loomis looked at him for a moment. The boy glanced back with the facial equivalent of a shrug, an impressively diplomatic expression that managed to say both “I’m sorry” and “What do you want?” Loomis sighed. He could think of nothing else to say that wasn’t even more inane.

“All right,” he finally said, and drove them back to the motel.

When they arrived, Loomis heard a commotion in the courtyard, and they paused near the gate.

The woman who’d been watching the two awful children was there at the pool again, and the two children themselves had returned to the water. But now the group seemed to be accompanied by an older heavyset man, bald on top, graying hair slicked against the sides of his head. He was arguing with a manager while the other guests around the pool pretended to ignore the altercation. The boy and girl paddled about in the water until the man threw up his hands and told them to get out and go to their room. The girl glanced at the boy, but the boy continued to ignore the man until he strode to the edge of the pool and shouted, “Get out! Let them have their filthy pool. Did you piss in it? I hope you pissed in it. Now get out! Go to the room!” The boy removed himself from the pool with a kind of languorous choreography, and walked toward the sliding glass door of one of the downstairs rooms, the little girl following. Just before reaching the door the boy paused, turned his head in the direction of the pool and the other guests there, and hawked and spat onto the concrete pool apron. Loomis said to his son, “Let’s get on up to the room.”

Another guest, a lanky young woman whom Loomis had seen beside the pool earlier, walked past them on her way to the parking lot. “Watch out for them Gypsies,” she muttered.

“Gypsies?” the boy said.

The woman laughed as she rounded the corner. “Don’t let ’em get you,” she said.

“I don’t know,” Loomis said when she’d gone. “I guess they do seem a little like Gypsies.”

“What the hell is a Gypsy, anyway?”

Loomis stopped and stared at his son. “Does ‘Uncle Bob’ teach you to talk that way?”

The boy shrugged and looked away, annoyed.

In the room, his son pressed him about the Gypsies, and he told him that they were originally from some part of India, he wasn’t sure which, and that they were ostracized, nobody wanted them. They became nomads, wandering around Europe. They were poor. People accused them of stealing. “They had a reputation for stealing people’s children, I think.”

He’d meant this to be a kind of joke, or at least lighthearted, but when he saw the expression on the boy’s face he regretted it and quickly added, “They didn’t, really.”

It didn’t work. For the next hour, the boy asked him questions about Gypsies and kidnapping. Every few minutes or so, he hopped from the bed to the sliding glass door and pulled the curtain aside to peek down across the courtyard at the Gypsies’ room. Loomis had decided to concede that they were Gypsies, whether they really were or not. He made himself a stiff nightcap and stepped out onto the balcony to smoke, although he also peeked through the curtains before going out, to make sure the coast was clear.

“I believe you have an unregistered guest at the bottom of your pool,” Loomis said.

He got a second cup of coffee, a plastic cup of juice, and a couple of refrigerator-cold bagels (the waffle iron and fresh fruit had disappeared a couple of visits earlier) and took them back to the room. He and his son ate there, then Loomis decided that they should get away from the motel for the day. The boy could always be counted on to want a day trip to San Diego. He loved to ride the red trolleys there, and tolerated Loomis’s interest in the museums, sometimes.

They took the commuter train down, rode the trolley to the Mexican border, turned around, and came back. They ate lunch in a famous old diner near downtown, then took a bus to Balboa Park and spent the afternoon in the air-and-space museum and the natural-history museum, and at a small, disappointing model-railroad exhibit. Then they took the train back up the coast.

As they got out of the car at the motel, an old brown van, plain and blocky as a loaf of bread, careened around the far corner of the lot, pulled up next to Loomis, and stopped. The driver was the older man who’d been at the pool. He leaned toward Loomis and said through the open passenger window, “Can you give me twenty dollars? They’re going to kick us out of this stinking motel.”

Loomis felt a surge of hostile indignation. What, did he have a big sign on his chest telling everyone what a loser he was?

“I don’t have it,” he said.

“Come on!” the man shouted. “Just twenty bucks!”

Loomis saw his son standing beside the passenger door of the car, frightened.

“No,” he said. He was ready to punch the old man now.

“Son of a bitch!” the man shouted, and gunned the van away, swerving onto the street toward downtown and the beach.

The boy gestured for Loomis to hurry over and unlock the car door, and as soon as he did the boy got back into the passenger seat. When Loomis sat down behind the wheel, the boy hit the lock button.

“Was he trying to rob us?” he said.

“No. He wanted me to give him twenty dollars.”

The boy was breathing hard and looking straight out the windshield, close to tears.

“It’s O.K.,” Loomis said. “He’s gone.”

“Pop, no offense”—and the boy actually reached over and patted Loomis on the forearm, as if to comfort him—“but I think I want to sleep at home tonight.”

Loomis was so astonished by the way his son had touched him on the arm that he was close to tears himself.

“It’ll be O.K.,” he said. “Really. We’re safe here, and I’ll protect you.”

“I know, Pop, but I really think I want to go home.”

Loomis tried to keep the obvious pleading note from his voice. If this happened, if he couldn’t even keep his son around and reasonably satisfied to be with him for a weekend, what was he at all anymore? And (he couldn’t help but think) what would the boy’s mother make of it, how much worse would he look in her eyes?

“Please,” he said to the boy. “Just come on up to the room for a while, and we’ll talk about it again, and if you still want to go home later on I’ll take you, I promise.”

The boy thought about it and agreed, and began to calm down a little. They went up to the room, past the courtyard, which was blessedly clear of ridiculous Gypsies and other guests. Loomis got a bucket of ice for his bourbon, ordered Chinese, and they lay together on Loomis’s bed, eating and watching television, and didn’t talk about the Gypsies, and after a while, exhausted, they both fell asleep.