Two years prior to last Tuesday, we talked by a bookcase at a dance and
kissed later that night. Now we're going to a bed and breakfast. Two
years exactly, plus the days since last Tuesday. We like occasions
marked. Bed and breakfasts are weird for us, us with our baloney
sandwiches in foil and our tired old toothbrushes, but we're trying
We're driving down Highway 1, our first time below San Francisco, and of
everything is beautiful. We are East Coasters looking at the hills, the
curves, the ocean, the fog. There's a sunset, even. Abby leans her head
to the glass and sees waves hitting rocks below. I drive and sometimes
look at the sun.
The Seaview Bed and Breakfast offers a sea view, it turns out, and
quiet and rustic charm. It is tucked away the way B&Bs are -- the tuck
that speaks to the world's mobile and moneyed: I'll be waiting for you,
in these trees. Don't worry, the needlepoint magazines are fanned on the
wicker coffee table just how you like them.
"The Chrysanthemum Room," the innkeeper says to us with something like a
swoon. She is no less than 70, has lived through the Depression and the
1960s and war -- yet she is stirred, on this day in her life, by the
Chrysanthemum Room. She hands us the key warmly. "You're going to love
We pass other couples on the way to the Chrysanthemum Room. They are
older than us -- in their 30s, their 40s, sometimes their 50s -- and are
chipper like the innkeeper. They regard us with winks. One woman calls
Abby's haircut precious. We're their friends. Bed and breakfasts are
We duck into our room and there are, of course, chrysanthemums. They
complement the quilt on the wall, which complements the trim. On the
end table is a note in calligraphy about the quilt's pattern. There are
old photos in old frames beside the bed. Someone has dusted. I look at
us in jeans, mine torn at the crotch and knees and pockets.
"They could have cleaned up a bit," Abby says.
We fall on the bed, and sigh from the long drive, and pick up the
cloth-bound notebook by the pillows. It's a guest log. We agree to go
find dinner but start leafing through the book. Leafing becomes reading.
"We loved the quilt! It went perfectly with the bedspread (the bed
was very comfortable) and the curtains. The room's motif was the same
one we (Steven and I) used in our wedding! Well, we've been married 20
years now and we're going strong. Thank you for a wonderful weekend.
We'll be back!"
"Ditto on the quilt! I've been trying to find one like it, but no
luck yet. What an interesting fabric used for the bedspread. The bed
itself was wonderful -- the detailing on the headboard is lovely, and the
mattress is nice and firm. We came for a romantic getaway and we got
one. Thank you for a perfect time."
"My husband was upset about the 49ers but we had a splendid time
anyway!!! The view is breathtaking -- like you promised! -- and the
Chrysanthemum Room was nice and cozy. You have the most comfortable bed
we've slept on in our 15 years together! Very soft! We'll be sure to tell friends about your establishment!"
Who are these strange sharers? They fill nearly 200 pages and we can't
put the book down. If this is voyeurism, it's a strange version: like
spying on someone knitting. And there is something compelling in the
actual entries, not just the gesture of reading them. So earnest! So
free! Yet such mystery -- why confer all this information upon strangers?
We decide to think about this.
Dinner's easy to find; our B&B turns out to be a B&B&D. We each eat
something rich with a lot of sauce. Same with dessert. Even the utensils
seem rich -- a better class of fork and spoon. People like their
indulgence indulgent, the silverware says. And Abby and I are only
partly grossed out, the thrill of the splurge not entirely lost on our
Guests filter into the dining room gradually, remarking on the wall
hangings, and the temperature, and the quaintness. An older woman with a
scarf has taken a seat near us. She smiles a couple times, and we smile
back, and she talks to herself between bites. When it's time to leave,
Abby and I stop at her table.
"Too much good food," I say, putting on my coat.
The woman nods, takes a bite of potato, and eases her chair back a foot.
"Anniversary," she says, looking us over. "I gather this is an
"Does it show?" Abby asks.
"I heard you talking."
The woman leans forward and points a fork, not exactly smiling.
"Whatever you do," she says, "be romantic always."
Abby and I look at each other. We thank the woman for her advice and
tell her goodnight. The walk back to the room is pleasant and slow and
lazy with all the food in our stomachs. We flop on the bed like pigs.
Barely awake, we opt for a little reading time and I return to the guest
log. It reads like a laundry detergent testimonial -- that kind of candor
that can't possibly be candor. These people are thrilled, and effusive
about being thrilled. They want to share their recapitulation of the
weekend with strangers they suspect to be like themselves.
"Heavens! What a place you have here. Lewis and I played backgammon
until midnight and it was marvelous. He didn't even mind getting beaten!
After that, we shared a nightcap and it was like we were 20 again. I
hope future guests have as romantic a time as we have."
Abby and I wake up Saturday to gray light in the Chrysanthemum Room. We
get dressed and go eat muffins with fancy jelly. Three other couples are
eating muffins, and everyone's talking about the rain just around the
corner. "These overcast days," the middle-aged woman from the Lilac Room
says, but trails off.
Back in our room, we consult the guest log for bad weather ideas. Rena
from Eureka says she and Thad found a cute collector's shop nearby.
Helen from Domino Falls visited the crafts museum two towns over, as
Frank had never cared for museums when they were married. Joan, with the
49ers fan husband, was happy to spend a romantic day in the B&B itself,
waiting out the rain and honeymooning all over again.
Abby and I go hiking. It's a stubby little pimple of a mountain butting
against the ocean -- probably a hill, really. We hike in the pretty gray
light, spotting rabbit tracks and deer tracks, then actual rabbits and
deer, which feels a little like closure. There is a light drizzle for
the last 20 minutes of the trip up, and when we reach the top and lie
back in the tall grass and look out over the valley and its mist, we
"It's the bed and breakfast," she says, pointing at a white speck in the
"It seemed so much bigger," I say. We lie and watch as a dogwood branch
shakes out some rain in the wind. The rain's made everything look more
focused. Abby and the tree and the hill
are a little dark in this air, that dark stillness that gives everything
the look of having been reconciled with everything else in the world. We
hold hands now and then on the way back down.
We spend the rest of the day driving around and stopping and getting out
to look or talk to people. By evening we're ready to find the B&B again.
We eat some carrots for dinner and follow the ocean back. Pulling into
the small, tasteful parking lot around 8 p.m., we notice the man from the
Lilac Room outside his door.
"Maybe you should've thought of that," he is barking as we pull in. He's
barking this through his door, then shutting it hard, then nodding to us
quickly as we get out of the car. "Evening."
Abby and I say hello and go to our room. We don't talk about the parking
lot scene. We aren't supposed to, B&B atmosphere dictates -- the scene was
out of place, a quick fart on prom night, a blank space in the Seaview
guest log to be overlooked. Not that the Lilac couple was way off the
mark; relationships are indeed public institutions here, so long as the
pleasant, breezy stuff is what's public. Each of our doors, after all,
empties onto the same patio, our meals appear in the same dining
quarters and our reading room has enough couch and chair space to fit
almost all the guests at once. Structured into the architecture of B&B
seclusion is a kind of community. We rent a privacy made public, a place
to be alone in front of peers.
Sunday morning, Abby and I wake, eat our breakfast and begin the
project of leaving: I put my sweatshirt in my backpack. Abby does
bathroom stuff, I check under the bed (a sock, a penny) and we enjoy
the remaining hours of vacation. I read one last guest log entry:
"There's something magical about this room. Charlie and I decided
it's either the rich, gorgeous colors in the rug, or the elegant
wallpaper pattern, or the astonishing view of the hills beside the
ocean. Not to mention the handsome bedspread and that incredible
mattress -- lying on the bed, we felt like we were floating! What more
could you want?"
Eileen from Massachusetts wrote this. It was two years ago that she and
Charlie felt like they were floating -- around the time Abby and I spoke
by that bookcase. Eileen's log entry continues in the manner of the
others: a list of their activities over the weekend, then more on the
subject of room decor. I read on until it slaps me in the face: These couples -- these people who collect figurines and consider placemats,
these lovers of all things homey away from home -- they're having sex in
front of us.
Or at least they're re-creating it for us. An instant replay, coded into
a language of fabric texture and mattress firmness. There are a lot of
adjectives. There is meticulous description of sensation. Over
two-thirds of the entries mention the bed. It is marvelously soft, or
wonderfully firm, or snug and warm and cozy against the winter night
air. The descriptions of the wallpaper, quilt and rug read like museum
text, and with no shortage of words. Indeed, the prose spills out with
the energy and zeal of a waterfall, or electricity, or sex. The entries
end with an explosion of affection, bliss and gratitude.
Women write most of the entries. Occasionally a man takes the reins and
says something crass about the mattress springs, but this is a distinct
breach; what unites all these entries is not just a common subtext, but
the tacit linguistic agreement on how this subtext gets serviced. This
may be kinkiness, after all, but it's kinkiness in a bed and breakfast.
There are rules.
So I've got weird bed and breakfast feelings when Abby and I decide to
take a walk before checkout. We cross Highway 1 to a cliff and look
down. The ocean smacks the base of the cliff like a postcard. I feel
like an ad for the B&B. We are a brochure, Abby and I, gazing at the fog
and the horizon. I'm struck by the familiar old paranoid realization
that everything's been orchestrated. It's not a particularly imaginative
paranoia, but enough to make the Pacific look funny. Then I think of the
guest log, waiting tastefully on the dusted end table. Maybe I've
miscalculated the orchestration of this moment. With the ocean and the
cliff and the calm, this moment is orchestrated not for me, but for what
I will say about it -- a sort of double remove. My value to the B&B exists
not within my own enjoyment, but the enjoyment I convince future guests
of in the log. Suddenly the bed and breakfast lays itself bare: an
exhibitionist performing for voyeurs who will become exhibitionists for
future voyeurs. The perversion!
"They want us to write about that view," I say to Abby, crossing back
over Highway 1. "That's why it's there."
"Don't worry so much."
This is our relationship. Pay for something, walk to something, recap,
start over. It's a good system. Two years ago, I would have been
surprised by the fact of a system in something so organic as love. Maybe
it takes that much time to learn that things work themselves out,
develop their own way. We have a way, I decide, a story we enact and
vary every day. We string our moments together with this story, and at
the same time, the story informs each moment -- each kiss or pause or
And maybe this is why part of me resents the B&B. Not because of its
doilies or indulgence, but because it imposes its own story over mine.
It tells me what anniversary means and anticipates my cooperation with
chrysanthemums. Get the veal, then a chardonnay, then turn the little
bathroom radio on and dance, Shirley says to future couples. Go stand under the weeping willow together, Joan advises. Hold hands, Mandy says.
Be romantic always. This is kind but too much.
But of course how absurd to resent a bed and breakfast. These people are
warm and gentle -- they do no worse than burn a pie now and then. I'm the
one who came here, I'm the one who surrendered my anniversary to someone
else's structure. Could I have expected anything else? There is
structure down to the very name, after all, a built-in narrative of how
my time will pass: first bed, then breakfast. Had I really wanted to
create my own narrative, I would have pitched us a tent.
Maybe the truth is that I don't know what my anniversary means. I don't
know how to appreciate this on a formal level. I celebrate my time with
Abby when I tie my shoe or fall asleep or look out the window with her
for a while -- these are when the moments rush back and I learn
gratefulness. Asked to collapse this into a weekend, I am at a loss.
At checkout, the innkeeper asks if we had a nice time. Abby and I tell
her we did, very terrific. Everyone loves it here, she says, something
like imperative in her voice. Then a phone call steals her away and our
conversation ends. We put the key on the desk and signal a thanks. The
innkeeper waves, then puts her hand over the phone and tells us to catch
the impressive tulips on the way out.
We are walking to the car. I want a surprise. I want something from off
the map. I don't know what I want. The morning is cold and we're hunched
over. I see the tulips by the B&B sign. They're impressive. Next I'm
ducking into the Chrysanthemum Room one last time. The maid has tidied
already, scattered a few House Beautifuls. I'm aware of a strange hole
left in me, despite the good time and the tulips and the sea view -- I
want something ugly, artless and frank to happen. I look at the guest
log but grab the cheap bathroom radio and walk to the car.
The drive back is largely quiet. We flip on the radio every few miles,
but it's one of those days where each song is the same. I will most
likely return it in the mail. Thirty minutes south of San
Francisco, rain sets in lightly. Abby takes off her seat belt and puts
her head on my lap. I think of the things that won't ever be worded, not
in a cloth-bound notebook or elsewhere.