Stories from the Road - 1


I spent a lot of this fall traveling to distant (and not-so-distant) cities as part of the crazy, ritualistic academic job search. That's not what I'm going to write about today, though. Since I am apparently unable to leave the house without strange things happening to me, I accumulated a few stories during my travels. Some I haven't even had a chance to tell yet, so I'll take advantage of Holidailies to share them. Today, I want to write about Carolyn.

I usually don't talk to people when I'm traveling. I've always been this way; when I was in college, I'd buy magazines in foreign languages and pretend not to understand English while taking the train down to NYC or flying home for school vacations. (This is part of my dark past as a pathological liar.) If I wanted to use academic terms, I might say that travel for me is a liminal space where I can exist in a state of betweenness, step outside everyday life and retreat into my own world. That's pretty much a load of BS, though, because a) my everyday life is my own world, and the only way to retreat any further would be to sink into a coma, and b) who talks like that, anyway?

Mostly, these days I get around the problem by sleeping. I have a sort of flight-induced narcolepsy that's so powerful, I often have a hard time staying awake in the waiting area of the gate. I guess just knowing I'm about to get on a plane triggers my sleep function. Most of the time I barely manage to stow my carry-on and fasten my seatbelt before zonking out. Dario, who has tried everything from Valium to melatonin to depriving himself of sleep for days before a flight, all in vain, kind of hates me for this ability. It may even be my very mild superpower.

On this particular trip, I was on my way westward. This was a two-legged journey, with a first stop in Phoenix on my way to California. I settled into my aisle seat next to an elderly woman who smiled sweetly at me. I fastened my seatbelt, clutched my book like a teddy bear, and closed my eyes.

Not for long, though. Carolyn, you see, wanted to talk. She protested that she never talks to people on planes, but had spied me at the gate and thought, "She looks like a very interesting person!" (Was it my awkwardness as I tried to juggle my airport breakfast along with my bag and carry-on while apologetically bumping my way through rows of waiting passengers to get to an empty seat? My ability to hold my laptop in place with my elbow and read email while sucking down caffeine with one hand and raining crumbs from some fat- and starch-laden item from the food court grasped in the other? Hard to say.) So, we chatted.

We chatted for five hours, in fact.

More shockingly still, although I was very sleepy and desperately needed a nap, I didn't mind. Carolyn turned out to be quite the interesting seat mate.

Carolyn was modestly but elegantly dressed and incredibly articulate, with an impressive vocabulary that never sounded Tim Gunn-ish. (Not that I have anything against Mr. Gunn, of course.) She was 84 years old, and was just returning to her home in Phoenix after spending her usual couple of months in her native area of northwestern Pennsylvania. It emerged that these months were spent in the company of a gentleman friend, someone she'd known in high school and had run into again a few years ago. By this point her husband had been gone for many years, and Carolyn thought it was a good idea to have someone around during these annual trips. She confessed, however, that she was getting tired of him. "He has absolutely no sense of humor," she told me. "I think I'll have to dump him."

Our plane took off just a few minutes after its scheduled departure time of 8:45 a.m., meaning that the first beverage carts rolled by at somewhere around 9:30. I asked for water, and Carolyn requested a serving of bloody mary mix. (Which, I guess, is somehow different from tomato juice, but I'm ignorant as to exactly why.) She poured herself a glass, then leaned down and rummaged in her handbag under the seat in front of her.

"Now you're going to see how naughty I am," she whispered conspiratorially. She held up a tiny bottle of clear liquid. "I always travel with four bottles of vodka in my bag," she explained. "That way, even if it's a bad flight I know I can get through it okay." She was very miffed that, for the first time, the inspectors had confiscated three of her four bottles. I have to say I don't really understand that, either.

She asked whether I was traveling for business or pleasure, and I explained it was for a job interview. When she asked what kind of job, exactly, and I said "university professor," she seemed surprised. We talked about her family, my job search, books, her deceased husband. We compared notes on online dating. "I went out with a few men I met on," Carolyn told me. "I didn't have sex with any of them, though." Something else we apparently had in common. I told her that my online dating experiences mostly consisted of ignoring email from 50- (or 60- or, in one memorable case, 70-) somethings looking for a younger woman, and 20-somethings who think that a subject line of "milf" and assurance that they're "rly in2 oldr womn" is somehow appealing. "Well, not that much older," she said. I raised an eyebrow. "I mean, you're probably about... 28, right?" Once I stopped laughing, I told her that I was terribly flattered, but she was 14 years off the mark. She actually gasped. "Oh, don't move to Phoenix!" she warned me. "I guessed your age based on your skin. Nobody in their 40s has skin like that in Arizona." Hee. (Note to self: get in the habit of wearing sunscreen.)

She told me about her daughters, both grown and married. One works as a personal trainer, and Carolyn assured me that if I did move to Phoenix as a result of my job search, she was sure we'd like each other a lot. I guess we'll see. The other daughter is apparently having a harder time finding her path; a series of unfortunate real estate investments has put her in a bind. Her mother worried about not being able to help her out financially as much as she'd like to.

At a certain point the conversation came around to pets, and Carolyn told me all about her dog, a labradoodle she'd adopted when the dog was eight years old. That was eight years ago. Although Lacey was up there in years, she was in good health; just a touch of arthritis in her back legs sometimes made it hard for her to walk.

Except, well. As she did every year, Carolyn had left her nieces with the responsibility of feeding and caring for Lacey while she was away. I got the impression her nieces were in their early 20s. A few weeks prior to our flight, Carolyn's sister had called and regretfully informed her that the girls had had Lacey put down. "She was just too much trouble to take care of," her sister explained.

Carolyn was understandably devastated at the news. "If only they'd called me first!" she said. "I could have found someone else to take care of her, or barring that, come home early." I was appalled. I mean seriously, who could do something like that? Have a perfectly (or almost perfectly) healthy animal killed because it's inconvenient? Especially when the animal in question doesn't belong to you, and has been entrusted to your care. Heinous. Carolyn admitted she didn't know how she was going to be able to face her nieces or even her sister again. "I'm not going to be calling them for a while," she told me. She was sad about going home to an empty house, without Lacey to greet her, and knowing that her own family was the cause. We were both tearing up at this point, so after a moment we changed the subject.

She told me a little about her past. She and her husband moved to Phoenix in the 1950s, when she was 25. "It was a very different place then, of course," she explained. "So much smaller, and you could really feel the desert all around you. We moved there for the golf and the weather, and because we could buy a much nicer house there than we could afford up north."

By the time we landed, Carolyn and I had swapped addresses. She made me promise to let her know where I ended up. "If you come to Phoenix," she said, "you'll have to come over for dinner." Unfortunately, I seem to have lost the slip of paper she gave me, so I'll have to find her by another means. She admired my perfume, but frowned when I explained that it was only