Short Story

We Prefer the Stairs

A humorous story of love and tolerance while traveling

Downward view of a large spiral staircase
(photo credit: Michael Whalen)

Rachel swears she likes to travel. No matter that she is deathly afraid of flying, does not enjoy trains, is prone to seasickness, and saving the particulars for later, detests my driving. Motorcycles? No way. Buses? Rather not. Subway? Out of the question. Mopeds, skateboards, zeppelins? Nope, nope, nope. Biking is good. Walking is better. Funny thing, though, she rides her bike on the sidewalk and walks on the bike path. This is a personal pet peeve of mine and seems dangerous, but to her, it makes perfect sense. Forget the wide-eyed, terror-stricken pedestrians who unexpectedly find themselves in the path of her blue mountain bike as it barrels towards them. She just gives a little ring ring of her pink bell, they narrowly escape by diving into the bushes, and she pedals on. I gave her that bell one Christmas as a cute stocking stuffer, unaware of how many lives it would save. I deserve a medal. When I’m not walking or biking with her, I travel right down the middle of the road, preferring to dodge garbage trucks and SUVs rather than meet her on opposite modes of transport.

To accommodate her travel anxiety, I once attempted to plan a trip to Spain from our home near Monterey, California via bicycle and/or walking. The mental exercise fell apart somewhere around Boston, on the shores of the Atlantic. That year, we “vacationed at home”, which for her meant sleeping in, taking long baths, gardening, and generally enjoying time away from her job as a marine biologist. For me, it was about pretending to be in Spain. I mixed Spanish wine with Kool-Aid and proclaimed it sangria. I played CDs with music sung in Spanish, ignoring the fact that Los Lobos hails from East LA. I set out our usual cheese and cracker happy hour treats, but on unusually small plates, and invited her to join me for tapas. I said buenos días at any hour and repeatedly greeted various pieces of furniture and household items. Hola sofa. Hola blender. Hola Spain guidebook with many highlighted passages and tagged pages representing the real vacation I was missing. In the process, I discovered that my mastery of the Spanish language was insufficient for an actual trip to Spain, but that wasn’t stopping me from bringing Spain to my house. Occasionally, she’d break me out of my daydream by asking if I’d like to join her for a walk on the bike path.

This year, however, I managed to persuade her to take a trip to Italy. I promised three weeks of breathtaking art, beautiful landscapes, scrumptious food, delicious wines, ancient ruins, the occasional leaning tower, and the romance of Venice. I stretched a bit and guaranteed sunny days and starlit nights, all at the perfect touring temperature of 72.4°F. Then with one hand on a make-believe Bible and the other secretly crossing its fingers behind my back, I assured her that all Italians are incredibly friendly and polite, speak perfect English, and pride themselves on helping foreign tourists navigate their homeland smoothly and efficiently. Finally, I lied shamelessly and said that our trip would not require any planes, trains, or boats, excepting a gondola should the mood strike us. At the end of my formidable monologue, which ran more like an infomercial for all things Italian, she was either too tired or too disengaged to say no. But I suspect she saw through me. I may have been standing in front of the bathroom mirror when I crossed my fingers or perhaps it was the exactness of the temperature I quoted, but whatever the case may have been, I sensed her wariness.

We purchased a big, red suitcase for her. She wanted small and black, but I managed to convince her that red was sassy and unique and the smaller size wouldn’t accommodate three weeks’ worth of clothing, shoes, and the occasional souvenir. Truth be told, I simply liked the red bag better and secretly wished I owned it instead of the dreary black behemoth in my closet. I also knew she could have gotten by with the next smaller size, but that would have made my oversized bag look even more ridiculous, towering over hers as we waited for a taxi or bus. Besides, I was already picturing the overflow of completely unnecessary items I could pack into her extra space. “Should I get the expandable version?” she inquired. Yes, definitely.

Traveling with me starts with the always eventful trip to the airport. I’ve calculated our departure time to allow for traffic, parking, the ubiquitous lines, and the multiple bathroom stops Rachel will undoubtedly request en route. When the designated time arrives, I’m usually rushing around the house doing my last-minute packing, home security checks, and other totally unrelated OCD-driven tasks. As always, Rachel is waiting for me, acting like I’m the sole reason airlines have poor on-time performance. There’s a hierarchy to the methods she uses to quietly convey the magnitude of our pending lateness and her increasing anxiety. Standing in the living room with bags packed, she’s ready to go. Jacket on, it’s time to go. Front door open, we’re late. Standing on the porch, getting later still — why are you vacuuming now? When she’s hefting her heavy suitcase into the trunk of our car, I know it’s time to stop looking around for items to overpack and actually start putting things into my suitcase. Finally, when she’s in the driver’s seat, car idling, one hand fondling the parking brake, I’d better get out the door. Well maybe one last look around. Did I check the back door four times yet? Better see. As crazy as my pre-departure routine is, I’m very familiar and comfortable with it. I’ve expected it, and most importantly, I’ve planned for it. My departure times always have obsessive compulsive disorder built into them. So yes, we’re late, but not as late as you think.

When I finally get to the car, I ask her to move over because I’d like to drive. In fact, I must drive because at this point, the normal 1½ hour drive to the airport must be completed at an average speed of 86 mph. There’s simply no other way. Rachel will drive a steady 55 mph, whether she’s on the way to the market or trying to outrun a tornado. It doesn’t matter, 55 is the number. On time, 55. Unbelievably late to a can’t miss appointment, 55. There’s no way Miss 55 is driving me to catch my Boeing 777 to Rome. No, it’s time for Mr. 90 mph. Talking on the phone, eating a sandwich, steering with a knee, “Honey, can you shift me into fifth” Mr. 90. I enjoy the challenge.

It’s unfortunate that speedometers are so prominently displayed. I feel this should be privileged information, reserved only for the occasional glance of the driver. When I see 92 mph, my passengers should only be admiring the artistic beauty of the red, blue, and black blurs that abstractly represent the cars I’m passing. If only Toyota had a hyperdrive. “Warp speed Chewie. Our flight leaves in ten minutes.” I bet Hans Solo didn’t even have a speedometer. As it turns out, our speedometer is located in the center of the dash, visible to all, and provides my lucky passengers with a real sense of impending doom.

Whenever the little red needle exceeds 55, I begin to hear her unspoken thoughts. “What is the maximum load of this seatbelt?” or “Does this car even have a passenger side airbag?” Sometimes her worries take the form of SAT questions. “If Johnny can get from San Francisco to Los Angeles in seven hours, and Mike, driving northbound to the San Jose airport, is already forty-five minutes late for his flight, how far will a body weighing 112 pounds be thrown in the ensuing head-on collision?”

It’s right about the time that I’m buckling up for this high speed adventure that Rachel updates my finely tuned itinerary with several unplanned excursions. These may include simple tasks like picking up a prescription or dropping off a library book, but it’s not unlikely that she’ll have scheduled a massage or signed up for a pottery class. I object, reminding her that all of these things and more could have been easily accomplished an hour ago while I was reorganizing the pantry. When I say I’m ready to go, I mean I’m ready to be on the way to our destination. When she’s “ready”, it only means she’s prepared to leave the house. All other venues and activities are still fair game. The airport is just the final stop on a long list entitled “errand day”. That would be fine I suppose, if I knew about it in advance and calculated the extra stops into my preferred departure time. But there is no advance notice. Refraining from vulgar outburst, I calmly ask, “Are these delays really necessary?” conveniently forgetting that I spent thirty-eight minutes alphabetizing our CD collection when I was supposed to be packing. I don’t argue long, however, because I know it will take less time to complete these side journeys than to debate them, invariably lose, and take them anyway. This I’ve learned. So off we go to the drugstore, palm reader, and bargain matinee.

When at last we are truly ready to leave town, I am beside myself with concern that our $5000 vacation is suddenly at risk because we may miss our flight. Good thing we avoided the $2.99 late fee by returning the (unwatched) Learn Italian in One Sitting DVD. And I’m quite sure British Airways is not going to give us free seats on the next plane simply because Rachel’s psychic said we would have a profound travel experience in the next seven days or seven months or seven years. With this motivating concern, I tighten my seatbelt, and Mr. 90 gets a promotion. My latest calculations indicate 94 mph is now necessary, and even I consider covering the speedometer with duct tape.

I’m not even entirely sure our little Toyota Echo can attain such speeds. It is a very small car with a very small engine, and now the trunk contains two very heavy pieces of luggage. We bought the Echo because it gets something like forty-eight mpg and has one of the lowest emissions on the market. At the time, we did not consider its ability to exceed Mach 2 in a travel-related emergency.

When I was a kid growing up in rural, upstate New York, I joined the cub scouts and eventually went on to the boy scouts. I enlisted mostly out of boredom, but with all of those mountains and trees around, I figured I might as well learn how to survive a night or two in them. I don’t do much camping these days, but if I did, I’d probably remember how to build a good cooking fire, even if I still planned to use the Coleman stove.

Anyway, once a year the cub scouts held the Pinewood Derby. Each scout was given a rectangular block of pine wood, four plastic wheels, and four small nails. The task was to whittle your block into a car, attach the four wheels with the four nails, and bring it to the Derby. The cars would be placed side by side, in slots, on a long ramp. They would be released simultaneously, and the first to reach the bottom was declared the winner and its creator the Pinewood Derby Champion.

The first year I worked my pine block until my fingers ached, whittling away chip after chip, hour after hour, dreaming of my upcoming victory. When at last the blasted whittling was finished, I attached the tiny wheels and proudly admired my pinewood creation, which now resembled a piece of rolling driftwood more than the finely contoured design I had so carefully drawn out prior to the manufacturing phase.

When I arrived on the big night, however, I was horrified at the scene. It seemed every other scout had some weird combination of Ferruccio Lamborghini and Bob Vila for a father. They were toting pinewood cars that actually looked like cars, with sharp aerodynamic angles cut with power saws and smoothed by belt sanders. They were painted in colorful high gloss and sported fancy numeral decals and little STP stickers. My God, they even oiled their wheels. And if that weren’t enough, some, if not most, had drilled out a reservoir in the underside and filled it with molten lead to further assist gravity in propelling their sleek forms down the track. There were no signs of whittling. Not in the cars, not in the palms of my so-called fellow scouts. Hell, I’m not even sure their fathers let them near the cars. My dad simply reminded me that I’d better clean up those wood shavings in the garage or else.

Needless to say, the trophy went home with someone else’s dad. I was so disheartened by the whole ordeal that the following year I simply nailed the wheels onto the rectangular block and entered it as is. I figured if I were up against Motor Trends Pinewood Car of the Year, I might as well skip the whittling and pretend I wanted to be last. I don’t even think I took care to nail the wheels on straight. When the Derby was run, my pinewood brick came to a full stop about a third of the way down the ramp. Everyone laughed. So did I.

The point is that sometimes I think back to that moment when I’m trying to climb a big hill in our little Toyota. All these gigantic, gas guzzling SUVs with 6000 horsepower engines are roaring up the grade at a cool 85 mph while I’m in the shoulder asking a passing jogger for a tow. And there are several of these mountains between our home and the airport. I hadn’t yet computed what twenty minutes at six mph does for our overall average speed, but I’m guessing the result is not going to lessen my anxiety over missing our flight. I sigh, and try to depress the accelerator further into the floorboard.

When we finally arrive at the airport, the fun isn’t over quite yet. There’s the long-term parking lot, named as such not for the duration you might be leaving your car but for how long it takes to park and get back to the airport. These lots are usually a good fourteen miles from the actual terminal, are mammoth in size, and are serviced by shuttle buses that make so many stops that you actually consider walking in the afternoon heat, despite the fact that one of the rollers on your fifty-seven pound suitcase broke off last year.

For driving purposes, these lots become my personal Daytona 500. I circle the sections at top speed, sometimes cornering on two wheels, craning my neck left and right as if watching a tennis match on fast forward. I know there’s a spot somewhere; the game is to find it as quickly as possible. While pausing briefly at an intersection, Rachel will sometimes pass me a cup of Gatorade using one of those long aluminum handles with tongs on the end. Change the left side rubber, top off the fuel, and I’m on the track again. And when Mr. 90 finally does find an empty space, there’s always some reverse necessary.

“See how lucky we are?” I say with a certain amount of pride, “A great spot, and there’s our shuttle!” As soon as I utter these words, the bus starts to pull away, and I realize the next one will come long after our plane is in the air. So there we are, running after the bus, bags in tow, me trying to balance fifty-seven pounds on the one good wheel, shouting “It’s OK, I think he sees us!” Usually the bus stops for us, albeit at the next pickup point. We jog up, breathing hard and sweating profusely, a good ¾ mile from our car, just in time to see a much closer parking space that was invisible at NASCAR speeds. In fact, many such empty spaces appear as we endure the long, slow bus ride to the terminal. “Wow,” I say, acting surprised, “a lot of people must have just left while we were unloading the car.” If I could see her eyes through the sweat, I’m sure they would be sending me messages.

But we make it. We always do. I’ve only ever missed a flight once, and that, I contend, was because I wasn’t driving. That was the last time I let someone else drive to the airport. We check in under the raised eyebrow of the ticket agent and then take our place in the long-term security line just about the time the first class passengers on our flight are being offered a complimentary beverage.

We endure the humility and invasiveness of the new security measures designed to enhance your safety. I never get it right though. If I remember to take off my jacket, it’s “Shoes off!” When I remember my shoes, it’s “Belt!” There’s always something. “Look under his hat for a possible grenade launcher!” “Is that cell phone loaded?” “Anything liquid, perishable, or potentially dangerous?” If I stripped naked and attempted to walk through, they would say “Chest hair!” and pull me aside for a more thorough screening.

Why is it that the chances of getting “randomly selected” are directly proportional to how close you are to missing your flight? One hour before departure, “Right on through, sir.” Jet way doors closing in thirty seconds, “Come with us.” Maybe randomly selected has something to do with the amount of sweat on your forehead or the whiteness of your girlfriend’s knuckles. Either way, it isn’t random; it’s an exact science.

Once we’re at the gate, it’s a completely different story. I’ve done my part. I got us here. My neuroses have been serviced and are quietly sipping a latte in the seat next to me. I begin to relax. This is where my vacation begins. On the other hand, this is where Rachel’s particular set of eccentricities take over. They’ve been waiting patiently, calmly making excuses for Mr. OCD, Mr. 90, Mr. Daytona, Mr. “I swear I didn’t know that toenail clipper was in my pocket”. But now it’s her turn.

Rachel is afraid of flying. Not just a little. When she was a child, her brother Scott locked her in a toy box and sat on the lid. The darkness and cramped quarters frightened her, and despite his sister’s screaming objections, Scott let the experiment go on for several minutes. Although to hear Rachel tell the story, you’d think she was blindfolded, cuffed, and bagged Houdini-style inside a titanium chest that her brother chained and padlocked before dropping into the backyard pool for hours. However it really happened, the end result was a lifelong case of claustrophobia and a fear of being locked into any space, no matter how big or small. She now views an airplane, any airplane, be it a propeller-driven eight-seater or a 400-seat jumbo jet, as just another toy box. Furthermore, the fact that most flights from coastal Monterey tend to venture over the Pacific at some point only reinforces her memory of the alleged backyard pool incident. I tell her that if in fact we do go down in a watery crash landing, she is probably the best equipped to survive, given her childhood training exercises. This statement does not, of course, have the intended effect.

To minimize the duration of Rachel’s confinement, we like to be the last passengers to board the plane, regardless of our seat assignment. This is seldom a problem. Often we arrive to find the gate area totally devoid of passengers and think we’ve missed our flight. We are usually greeted by name by the gate agents. “You must be Rachel and Michael; we’ve been expecting you.” Entering the jet way bridge, we find the missing passengers. They have simply been ushered from the airport chairs to a line in the tiny corridor. It’s not so much like we’re boarding, we’re just forming a line in preparation of boarding. Always with the lines. Rachel knows her toy box is waiting at the end of this particular line, and the fact that the entryway to her personal hell has now become another crowded container does not help.

In reality, we are waiting for all of the on-time passengers to fill up every square inch of overhead storage space. Not to mention the oversized carry-on baggage that must be gate checked. You know these people, right? The ones who knowingly bring a carry-on bag three times the size of the maximum allowable dimensions and act surprised when the flight attendant informs them they’ll have to gate check their bag. One of their bags that is. Because inevitably these people are also toting a briefcase or computer case or set of golf clubs. “What do you mean they won’t fit under my seat, I left the 2-iron at home?” These people are the nemesis of airline travel, but I’ve got to hand it to them, they’ve discovered a giant loophole. They have capitalized on the fact that the airline will tag their baggage at the gate, and then hand deliver it as they step off the plane. It’s like valet parking for your bag. It definitely beats paying to check them, risking a baggage handling error, and pre-empts the horrific baggage claim scene, with the endless jostling for position, the worry over someone mistaking your square black bag for their square black bag, and of course, the dreaded no-show bag. No sir, none of that nonsense for these VIPs. They simply hand over their downhill skis as they board and get them handed back as they exit. And the worst part is, no one is allowed to deplane until all of the valet-parked bags are retrieved and arranged along the jet way. In Dallas, I was once held up on the plane for twenty minutes before they opened the doors. I sprinted to my connecting flight in time to see the plane pushing back from the gate. Those brilliant, lousy bastards …

As much as I secretly admire their tactics, I cannot bring myself to indulge. My carry-on bag is always small because when you’re the last person to board, there is absolutely no overhead space left. My bag must fit under the seat. I’m certain airline designers originally intended this space for your legs and feet, but with all of those golf bags overhead, your feet had better learn to get along with your backpack.

Being six feet tall, I always try to book an aisle seat. It gives me room to stretch my legs and get up for a stroll to the lavatory without bothering anyone. Next best is the window, and then everyone’s least favorite, the center seat. No one like the center seat. Anytime 27E comes up on my boarding pass, I immediately envision a grossly overweight person with body odor encroaching from my left while another obese man naps on my right shoulder. I, of course, am wedged in the middle for the fifteen hour flight from LA to Hong Kong. Luckily for me, traveling with Rachel has removed all seating uncertainties. I now know that I will always have the center seat. Her claustrophobia dictates that she sit on the aisle. It gives her the false impression that she could escape if necessary. Escape to where I don’t know, but nevertheless she demands the aisle. At 5’4”, her feet barely touch the floor, and I often spend much of the flight staring longingly at the empty void under the seat in front of her and the spacious expanse of the neighboring aisle. Meanwhile, my feet wrestle with the backpack, the person in front of me reclines my dinner into my lap, and the snoring man in the window seat next to me begins to drool.

The only positive is that we never have a problem sitting together, even when we book last minute and only single seats on opposite ends of the plane are available. You can imagine the speed and ease of the following seat exchange: “Excuse me, sir. Sorry to bother you, but would you mind terribly if we switch seats so that I can be next to my girlfriend? I’ll take 49E, your noisy, back row, near the bathroom, ‘sorry we’re out of the chicken’, center seat next to the snoring man with a runny nose. In exchange, you can have 8A, my aisle seat in the business class exit row, next to the cute college girl in the pink tank top that reads Juicy.” Sometimes these airplane seating lottery winners actually run down the aisle. I hope they enjoy the chicken.

During taxi, take-off, and landing, my job is to distract Rachel with some long, rambling story — a sort of airplane filibuster. Her job is to close her eyes tightly, breathe deeply, and squeeze my hand with the strength of ten men. When the plane encounters the inevitable turbulence, my task is to reassure her that we are not plummeting to the Earth while she again squeezes my hand down to ¼ its original size. She never believes me though. I’ll tell her that it’s just some bumps in the air, like potholes on the highway or a boat bouncing over waves. She will nod her head yes, but at the same time totally dismiss my brilliant analogies, remain panicked, if not more so, and ask a flight attendant or nearby passenger if we are about to die. These experts will tell her that it’s just some bumps in the air, like potholes on the highway or a boat bouncing over waves. She will then breathe a tiny sigh of relief, relax just a bit, and tell me it’s going to be OK. Why the credibility of my opinion is inversely proportional to the level of her panic is beyond me, but I thank her and tell her that even I feel more relaxed now that she’s consulted the seven year old sitting across the aisle.

You’d think that once we’ve landed, all would be right in Rachel’s world. Well, almost. There’s that point in the post-landing taxi where the plane stops just short of the gate, waiting for the ground personnel to attend to some task or another. The delay is never long, but for Rachel, it’s an eternity. It’s the momentary pauses that really get her. She wants the aircraft doors to fly open immediately upon landing, if not before. When the plane stops moving, and the doors don’t open right away, she concludes there must be something wrong. Although we are on the ground, at the gate, with at least a dozen trained airline staff nearby, she believes we are now trapped inside the plane, destined to rot in our seats. At least we’re near the bathroom. It doesn’t help that everyone is now standing, crowding forward, anxiously trying to retrieve their Pings. She looks out the window, sees other planes at their respective gates, and probably assumes those poor passengers are in the same sad situation. All of us, doomed.

At last the doors open, and roughly thirty-two minutes later, row 49 is allowed to exit the plane. We emerge triumphantly, although Rachel is panting and sweating as if we had just run down the long-term parking bus. Funny that our flights end the way they start. Lines and sweat.

With all of the energy we expend getting to our destination, it’s a wonder we have anything left for our vacation. I usually try to book a flight that arrives in the early evening so that by the time we go through the immigration line, the baggage claim fiasco, the customs line, the bus, train, or taxi line, and reach our hotel, it’s time for bed. Whatever adventure lies waiting outside our hotel window, be it Milan, Paris, Sydney, or I-65, it can wait until tomorrow.

Vacation mornings come early for me though. At home, I could sleep for three days solid, but when I’m on holiday, it’s a completely different story. It’s time to go, go, go. I want to see it all, do it all, taste it all, and meet them all. This means you have to get out there, get around, and get talking to the people. Perhaps a metro ride will be involved. Maybe some brisk walking. Climb a few stairs. Ride an elevator or two. Probably stand in a lot of lines. So why not get an early start?

Rachel, however, views vacation, and especially vacation mornings, much differently. It’s a time to sleep in, take long leisurely baths, enjoy a slow paced breakfast, and sip coffee until noon. As she begins to rustle in bed, I am already showered, dressed, and holding her coat and the door open for her.

“Let’s go,” I say, “Don’t you want to beat those lines at the museum?”

“Why start now,” she mumbles, and rolls over into another long nap.

When she next opens her eyes, I have room service waiting for her, and although it’s already cold, I shovel some eggs into her mouth while she’s yawning. She swallows, gives in, and heads for the bathroom. At this point I sneak out and visit an art gallery or take a scenic boat tour because I know there is ample time between shower on and Rachel ready to go. Not that she’s the high maintenance type. She’s not vain, doesn’t wear a lot of make-up, and doesn’t even own a hair dryer. She just likes to take her time in the shower. I suspect she actually lies down in the tub and takes yet another morning nap. When she finally emerges from the bathroom, I am usually caught stuffing an imitation Botticelli or a ¼-scale plastic Pieta into her roomy suitcase.

As we begin our sightseeing, I attempt to steer her away from the gallery or boat tour I have just secretly enjoyed, but sometimes she insists and we go. The woman behind the ticket window gives me a peculiar look as I purchase my second admission of the morning, and I quietly hope for her silence in the matter. The man at the turnstile smiles and says “Nice to see you again sir, did you forget something?” I nod, he punches my ticket, and I stuff it in my pocket next to the other one. Rachel asks if I know the man and reminds me under a suspicious eye that I said I had never been to Italy before. I brush it off as a case of mistaken identity and tell her the Botticelli room is to the left.

Once we get going, I imagine our version of sightseeing generally resembles that of most travelers. Lines, fascinating museums, striking monuments, more lines, ancient ruins, and timeless masterpieces. Perhaps the only significant differences come at mealtime and whenever there are elevators or restrooms involved.

Rachel is a recovering vegetarian, and once again, brother Scott is the responsible party. When they were kids, every time a meal included a meat product, he adopted the habit of making the associated animal sound at the table. Every burger was accompanied by a “Moo!”, and every chicken salad sandwich was delivered with a “Bawk-cluck-cluck-bawk!” Finally, at the age of sixteen, Rachel declared she was no longer eating animals, and her incisors went into retirement. For the next eighteen years, she was unwavering in her dedication to consuming only plant life.

Enter Mike, the carnivore. I was raised on meat and potatoes. In the house of my father, dinner wasn’t dinner unless the these two food groups were present. Poultry didn’t count. Seafood wasn’t worthy. Pasta unaccompanied by copious amounts of meat and sausage was unacceptable. And so it was for me until I moved out and experienced the vast diversity of food available beyond my parents’ refrigerator. I love everything these days, except lima beans, and I can sit down to a bowl of tofu and rice as quickly as a slab of ribs. I still love meat though, even if I tend to eat less of it these days.

I’m not the only one. Meat is a staple in many cultures. Even in countries where it is rare and pricey, most families tend to have a little protein on their dinner plates. It seems the world has not embraced vegetarians and their extremist cousins the vegans as well as the US. This makes finding an acceptable restaurant in a foreign country a bit more complicated for us. “Excuse me, do you serve filet mignon and falafel?” Try explaining “She’ll have the cheeseburger, but without the burger” in any foreign language. Before our trip to Italy, I asked a friend who grew up in Rome for some restaurant recommendations. In the middle of his very animated description of his favorite hideaways, I asked if being a vegetarian would be a problem. His jaw dropped, arms falling to his sides. “It is a BIG problem!” he shouted, scowling at me like he might have to call “someone he knew” and have us denied entry to his homeland.

But it’s getting better. To make cooking at home easier, I have been slowly introducing the idea of meat to Rachel, and as of late, her resolve is crumbling. It started with bacon, the demon of all vegetarians. Really, how can you not like bacon and all its salty, crispy goodness? I once saw a cookbook titled Everything Tastes Better with Bacon. I couldn’t agree more. Then came roast turkey at Thanksgiving. Just one slice. Fish and other seafood like shrimp and scallops followed. One time she didn’t even pick off the errant pepperoni that strayed onto her half of the pizza. But I was amazed when she tried prosciutto in Venice, and absolutely astonished when she asked for a bite of my wild boar in Siena. Soon she was ordering steak and cheese, roast beef, and club sandwiches on her own, frowning if I asked for a bite. I just smile, thinking to myself, “mission complete, one less vegetarian,” and return to my tofu yum-yum bowl.

Elevators also seem to plague us wherever we travel. As you might imagine, Rachel is not a big fan of elevators. There used to be a time when you could choose to take either the elevator or the stairs. Both were clearly visible, and each was an acceptable means of gaining elevation. Today, however, with taller buildings, more stringent safety codes, and heightened security, the stairs are difficult to find and in some cases, inaccessible to the would-be climber. As a rule, we look for the stairs first, and if they turn up missing, we ask someone, be it a front desk clerk, security guard, or valet. These people always respond with the same perplexed look which seems to ask “Why would anyone want to walk up seventeen flights of stairs?” It’s true that I’d like to turn to Rachel and ask the same, but instead I look squarely at the person of authority and say, “We prefer the stairs.”

Sometimes the hotel employees don’t even know where the stairs are located. Our question completely shocked one desk clerk at a high-rise hotel in Southern California. She simply did not know. She asked other clerks, the bellhop, and even consulted a manager. Blank faces all around. Finally, hotel security was called, and a burly man sporting three radios and a huge set of keys informed me that the stairs were locked for security purposes, and after all, he should know.

“Perhaps you could also shut down the elevator and really keep the rooms safe from the guests,” I offered with a smile.

Mr. Security missed the humor but went on to explain that the staircases were accessible from any of the upper lever guest floors. The doors on the lobby floor, however, were locked to prevent non-guests from accessing the hotel rooms. After a fairly lengthy discussion, it was agreed that they would unlock one of the stairwells for us. Mr. Security leaned in and whispered that only we were to know of this breach in protocol. With a shifty glance to either side, I narrowed my eyes and told him I could be trusted. Satisfied, he called an assistant to lead me to the clandestine staircase.

I later met Rachel, who was attending a work-related seminar while these negotiations were taking place, in the lobby and assured her that our altitude issues were resolved. I led her up to our room without incident, and she relaxed, thanking me for my efforts. Soon thereafter, we decided to go out for dinner and descended our secret stairway. Reaching the bottom, I confidently grabbed the handle and said “Voila!” Nothing happened. At least with the door. The handle didn’t turn; the door didn’t open. Rachel’s mouth, however, did, and she ran back up the stairs screaming madly. I called after her to stop screaming because she was using up the available oxygen too fast. Sometimes I can’t help myself.

It’s these sort of experiences that really set us back. Because we work on her phobias. In Monterey, there is only one building with more than a few floors, an ugly nine-story hotel that many locals feel completely ruins the charm of our seaside town. Rachel and I have gone there in the wee hours, after everyone is long sleeping, to practice riding the elevators. Yes, practice. I hold the door and she looks into it. Another night she might actually step into the box, one hand still clutching the outside world. Better attempts include letting the door begin to close before she leaps out, leaving me to ride to the ninth floor alone. When I am out of earshot, somewhere around the fourth floor, I laugh because I don’t really need the practice. On the best of nights, she’ll actually ride up one floor. Progress, even if she still takes the stairs back down.

Sometimes, she’ll manage the elevator if there is a bona fide operator. You don’t find these folks much anymore, but occasionally, at some fancy historic lodge, the elevator will open to reveal a sixteen year old summer hire wearing a stiff, silly-looking uniform and an iPod. But he’ll do. He is a person of authority and knowledge. He can be trusted to push the button on our behalf. He has surely had intensive training. He will save us. I know that if the elevator did get stuck, I’d be comforting both of them, but I nod solemnly and say, “Seven, please.”

Unfortunately, our progress was halted by none other than brother Scott, the original creator of Rachel’s phobic tendencies, who visited about a year ago with his two daughters. The three of them convinced Rachel to ride an elevator in the hotel where they were staying. Everyone entered quietly and stood calmly as little Molly pushed the “Lobby” button. Rachel asked if they should leave such an important task to a six year old but resisted the urge to leap through the closing doors. When the elevator began to descend, Scott and the girls started screaming loudly, jumping up and down, and repeating “Oh my God, we’re going to die!” Needless to say, Rachel joined in and there they were, four raving lunatics, going down together. Only one of their screams wasn’t fake. Little Brother 3, Rachel 0.

So now I am less than thrilled when a hotel assigns us an eighth floor room. Glancing between the “8” on the room key and our two heavy suitcases, I sigh because it’s not like she’ll let me take the bags up in the elevator and meet me on our floor. “What if I get stuck in the stairwell for Christ’s sake?” So up the stairs I go, pack mule style, sweating and wheezing as if I were the one having the panic attack. I think to myself, there is no way I will ever vacation with Rachel in New York City. Fifty-ninth floor my ass. I’d rather vacation at home.

Restrooms are similarly difficult, being small in nature, with no certified operator, and having potentially complicated locking mechanisms. For Rachel, potentially complicated could mean a sliding latch, a rotating knob, or a swinging lever. All of these could malfunction and trap her indefinitely. The workaround, as always, involves me. I must first scout the scene and report back with the location, size, and layout of the bathroom, the length of the stall doors and whether or not someone of her size could crawl out beneath them, and finally, the type of locking device employed. Optional reports include the amount and relative softness of the available toilet tissue, style of décor, and whether or not the soft soap contains aloe and vitamin E. To date, I haven’t been arrested while conducting these reconnaissance operations, but it’s only a matter of time.

Cleanliness is also a factor. Rachel has pretty high standards of hygiene and prefers not to mingle with the common public restroom. She’ll refuse to drink water on a plane or while touring a city for fear of needing a bathroom. Apparently dehydration is preferable to the public toilet seat. It’s hard to disagree really. Despite her best efforts, duty occasionally calls. For these unfortunate instances, she is compiling a list of acceptable bathrooms around the world. Need a restroom in San Francisco, she can give you the top five, ranked in order of preference and sorted by neighborhood. New York, LA, Dublin — she’s got the best pee spots scouted, sorted, and stored. I told her she should publish, but she contends that will only lure the masses and destroy the few safe havens that remain.

I think the public restroom is the real reason Rachel takes yoga. These classes discipline the mind and body to remain calm and focused while maintaining an unnaturally contorted position. This is exactly the kind of training required for a woman to hover over a dirty toilet seat in a two foot square bathroom stall, one hand holding her pants off the floor, the other blocking the door against possible intrusion, and yet somehow manage to relax the bladder. Easy does it now, breathe, release, just reach over for the paper, gently, and now back on with the pants. It’s amazing really.

Men have it easy; we just stand and deliver. If we choose, we never have to touch more than our zipper. Peek into a men’s yoga class and you would see everyone standing against the wall, looking straight ahead. Piece of cake.

Certainly Rachel’s worst case scenario is the airplane lavatory, truly a confluence of all her fears. Flying toy box, tiniest of spaces, full floor to ceiling doors with no escape route below, locking mechanisms, people waiting in crowded aisles, and usually the smelliest and most disgusting of sanitary conditions. If only there were an elevator involved … These are the doors she refuses to lock. Instead, I must accompany her and serve as sentry outside the unlocked, and sometimes partially ajar door. I have no idea how she manages to do her business because the lights in these stalls only turn on when the door is latched. So while she’s inside feeling her way around like Helen Keller, I’m outside repeating “It’s occupied” and “Sorry, someone’s using this one.” I have to repeat these lines over and over because with the door unlocked, the little green sign that reads available is displayed rather than the red occupied one. The people who have been holding it throughout the movie seem to hear my words, but then see green and try to push by me. I’m not sure why that little green sign has more authority than me, an intelligent human being with clearly audible words, but it does. Men, women, and children will look at me, the green sign, and then back to me to secretly size up whether or not they could take me in a rush. Like a camper confronted by a bear, I just stand tall and try to look bigger than I really am, which isn’t difficult when positioned in front of the miniature Alice in Wonderland lavatory door. So far, it hasn’t come to blows, but let’s hope they never replay any The Lord of the Rings epics on our flights.

To accommodate her special needs, Rachel will study the appropriate foreign language prior to our departure, however she’s not interested in gaining proficiency or the ability to interact socially while in the country. She only wants to be sure she can ask where the stairs are located, if the restrooms are clean, and if the #14 has meat in it. Beyond that, she leaves the remaining 132,000 vocabulary words, assorted verb tenses, and slang terms to me. I now know how to say “Sorry, someone’s using this one” in eight different languages.

Two years ago, Rachel took a French class at the local community college before a trip to Paris. In addition to hello, goodbye, and thank you, she learned how to say “I am horrified of elevators, where are the stairs?” She even wrote it down on a flash card which she still carries with her today. I guess you never know when you’ll need to pop into the French embassy. Rumor has it they have a nice bathroom.

For our trip to Rome, she enrolled in an adult education program for conversational Italian. This time she mastered the two key phrases necessary for any trip to Italy: “My sister’s name is Tina” and “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.” Although Rachel introduced several street vendors to her sister, who, to their surprise, was not traveling with us, she didn’t have use for the latter phrase. Just in case, I memorized it too.

In the end, Italy proved to be a fun vacation despite my pre-departure frenzy and Rachel’s unique travel requirements. We only had one incident where she swore to leave me. She presented her well-rehearsed version of the farewell speech, and then asked me to watch the bathroom door while she went inside and tried to figure out how to get back to California via bicycle.

It’s for these moments that she always carries her own set of house keys. If I were to ever abandon her or if she decided to leave me at some foreign outpost, her main concern would be how she’d open the front door of our house. I don’t mind, generally, unless she later asks me to hold them because they’re too bulky for her pants pocket. I figure that one day, she’ll trust me enough to leave them at home, knowing that I would never leave her stranded, anywhere, and that I’ll always hold her hand during taxi, takeoff, and landing, carry her bags up the stairs, and guard the door for her. In the meantime, I’ll carry her keys and hope she never needs to use them.

This story was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short-Story Award for New Writers.

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Observer. Thinker. Mindful Human.

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