“Aloha,” chirps the attendant at the resort as I nervously approach the reception desk. I’ve got a cheap fabric lei around my neck, and while I walked inside feeling bemused and confident just moments earlier, three successive encounters with enthusiastic staffers greeting me with big-grinned fervor and lack of respect for personal space has left me feeling shaken.
“Ohana,” I say, quietly, “I’m Rebecca Stokes?” She smiles at me and ignores my bad joke. She is looking me in the eye and typing as lightning speed on a keyboard I can’t see. She doesn’t blink or stop smiling. It’s an expectant kind of grin. After a moment, I become convinced that we must know each other somehow and she’s waiting for me to put the pieces together. High school, maybe? No, way too young. Could she be from Providence? I can’t believe I just had such a Rhode Island-type thought. I’m licking my lips -- lizard tongue, in and out -- and getting ready to apologize for not being able to place her when she beats me to the punch.
“Ooookay, Mrs. Stock,” she says finally. “Your room is ready! As part of the press tour you get free access to the workout room AND free WiFi! Ivan will take your bags!” I immediately feel like apologizing for not having brought any exercise clothes with me for my less-than-24-hour stay. “Will you be needing any park tickets during your stay?” Ivan is standing off at a respectable distance. “Uh, no, sorry,” I said for absolutely no reason. Why would she care? But I can’t shake the feeling I’ve let her down. “I don’t have any real bags,” I continue. “Mahalo?” I say, shrugging like an upright turtle and walking off in any direction that will take me away from Ivan’s disapproving gaze and the young hotel clerk’s searching smile.
Aloha. Ohana. Mahalo. We’re not even in Hawaii. We’re in Florida, in Orlando. This place is just Hawaiian themed. It’s also sprawling. My walk from the parking lot to the hotel was roughly eleven miles in humidity intense enough that I could feel my pores hiss and my butt cheeks maliciously welcome the encroaching case of swamp ass sure to strike at any moment. It’s my first time in the state. I travel more and more these days for my job. I am a writer, and sometimes, a reporter, and I’ve been invited to a press conference here in the sunshine state, just adjacent to the happiest place on earth. I don’t feel happy, I feel gassy and panicked as I fumble with the key to my room swiping four times before gaining entrance.
The dark, cool room is soothing. I go to the window and look outside. A pug is hunched over amid the palm taking a dump. I envy him. My bowels have turned to lava rocks. A woman stands staring at the pug. Presumably she’s his owner. She’s smoking a cigarette and I can see her lips moving. For whatever reason, this is the moment where The Awful that plagued me on the flight and in the car on the way to the hotel vanishes and I laugh. I even get a little bit cocky when I think about my day so far. Not about the job or the bizarre digs I’ve got the opportunity to make use of -- cocky about my mental wellness.
I successfully flew on a plane without booze or pills. I successfully rented a car. I was speeding, speeding, speeding down the open highway and I was so fucking proud of myself! “FLORIDA SEEMS WEIRD,” I bellowed to Google Maps, my sole companion. “BUT DAMN IF THERE ISN’T A LOT OF SKY.” For one moment I consider driving off. I consider bypassing the route as poor Google Maps works to frantically reroute for every vanished mile and going some place new. The exhilarating is short-lived, cut off by a louder thought: I am all alone.
It’s not a good thought. It’s not a bad one, either. It’s like waking up and not knowing where you are -- it’s fine, it’s just not what you expected and it takes some time to recalibrate. I take a nap in the hotel room and I wake up not knowing where I am. I had a dream about the hotel. I dreamed of hidden passages of a murder, of being locked in the room, of the guy I think about yelling at me from the other side of the door, I dream I am late to the dinner I have flown in to attend. I wake up, awash with sweat. There isn’t enough time to shower but I do anyway and I slam a cup of coffee.
By the time I make it to dinner I am somehow not at all late. I climb the stairs to the private function area and there is a head-sized margarita in my hand. Someone else is helping me find my nametag. Being thus prepared, I survey the room. This is what the nightmare was about, right? This is the moment I hate so much I’d stay locked in a hotel room, hidden in my apartment, speeding down a Floridian highway in a stolen rental car, to avoid: The moment where I have to go from not knowing anyone, to knowing someone.
When I think about this later on the flight home, I won’t be able to make the moment crystalize at first. I have to go back to the start of the trip and take it apart, piece by piece. Sitting in the airport waiting to go home, I am drained to the point where I am quietly crying as I sit in the well-appointed waiting lounge. Texting my two best friends and telling them that I’m worried I’m having a nervous breakdown. They both do what they are excellent at doing, one soothes, the other distracts.
The trip was a success. The margarita in my hand and the nametag magnetized to my person, that was the moment it turned in my favor. I approached to other writers already in conversation, and I horned my way in. They let me horn my way in. My heart is racing, my sweaty hand almost lets the ever-growing-in-size-margarita fall. But I do it. I did it. Hours will pass. I will have a fun dinner with a table full of strangers. I will go bowling and cheer and be cheered on by people I did not know four hours ago. I will be cheerful and fun and funny and yes, in my guts still feel the cramping grip of constant loneliness and fear, but I will be laughing. It will be like the best sort of summer camp where you will love perfect strangers so completely and genuinely and then go away and never see each other again.
That’s me in the airport crying a little, rental car returned, job done. That’s me, burnt out from too much socialization and excitement and nervousness and staring back over one shoulder wishing that every moment could be as charged as the ones I’ve just experienced. Can I just be my best, most terrified, most brave self everyday? Can that be what my life is? My phone buzzes. One best friend texts me flight casualty statistics, I laugh. I used to hate how breakable I seemed to be, but here in the lounge just outside the airport spa, it feels like the only way to be.