Wilmington: Traveling Alone

Caitlin Butler

“I have to drive four hours away by myself, and spend a whole weekend in this town where literally the only person I’ll know is Dr. Mack, who I won’t even see except for the conference, where I have to present in front of a bunch of smart people and tell them all about this poet whose poetry I don’t even like! Alone! Are you sure you can’t go with me?” I made certain that everyone knew.

When I learned I’d have to present the results of my undergrad research project out of town, I asked my three best girlfriends, one by one, if they could come with me. Nope. One couldn’t take off work, one couldn’t miss class, and one had to help with a wedding. The time of the trip drew closer, and I asked a couple of girls I barely knew. They had exams. Two weeks out, I asked my boyfriend. He had an exam, too. I asked another boy. He had a girlfriend. C’est la college.  So, I resigned myself to a solo trip and my friends to a guilt trip.

Barreling down I-20 in my green Buick sedan, I literally hoped to God it wouldn’t fall apart on this trip. I had given it a good going-over before I left: checked the oil (dark, but not low), checked the coolant (something was in the reservoir, so… I guessed that was good), topped off the air in the tires (42psi, and I love those machines that tell you the pressure while you’re pumping), and even washed the windshield. That’s the extent of my automotive ability. Something about the ritual felt like a safeguard, but I didn’t have much faith. However, aside from the usual bucking and shuddering coming from the transmission every so often, the old car ran great, so I turned up the radio and settled in for the nearly four-hour straight shot to Wilmington, North Carolina. Alone.

I left my poetry class at USC Aiken on Thursday at 6 p.m. I took a wary-faced selfie at a red light just before the sun went down and posted it online. It was important for the Internet (and the friends who’d abandoned me to my fate) to understand my trepidation. Sometime down the road, shout-singing with songs I would’ve made fun of if I’d been accompanied, I decided this alone thing might not be too bad. Sure, I had never been anywhere far from home on my own before—every other time I had either been with someone, or going to see someone—but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be fun. So, by the time I slung my car haphazardly between two white lines and flicked my windshield wipers off at the Best Western Plus University Inn at 10 o’clock, I had realized that this was a grand opportunity to do absolutely whatever I wanted all weekend. Except for presenting, which wasn’t optional.

My excitement flagged at the reception desk. The bleachy-permed woman smiled at me sadly, pointing her concerned penciled brows first at me, then at her computer screen. “Janice Butler?”

“Yes, that’s me. But it might say Caitlin. I go by Caitlin.”

“Well, I have Janice. Did you book for the fifth through the seventh?”

“Yes. Tonight and tomorrow night.”

“Oh dear. Well, it looks like this booking was for the fifth through seventh last month, and it says you didn’t show up!”

“Oh! Well, that’s odd. I didn’t book for last month—I  was very careful. There should be a reservation in my name for today through the seventh. I have the email receipt.”

My discounted reservation with Priceline had “disappeared from the system,” and couldn’t even be found on the other computer, “because sometimes they don’t go through,” that is, “if it had even gone through to begin with,” because “well, sometimes these things with Priceline don’t work right.”

“Hm. Okay.” She wasn’t making a definite move to correct the situation, so I decided to find my receipt. I had to go back to my car. I took a weary breath (but didn’t sigh), smiled, and blinked slowly. I rolled my suitcase away from the desk, and propped it against the back of a sofa, where its white polka dots against the black background reproduced in the automatic glass door. The door had already sighed half open and wearily closed again about three times since my arrival, sensing my unease.

“I’ll be right back. My phone’s in my car. I can show you the receipt. Will you keep an eye on this while I run and get it?” The question felt ridiculous, since the lobby felt like a ghost town. No one sat on the unwelcoming, rectangular sofas with their off-putting burgundy and gold shimmer upholstery, and nobody clicked down the dimly lit halls.  But I asked anyway. It would have looked irresponsible to just leave it there without saying anything.

I yanked the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, giving myself what I imagine was at least a slight resemblance to a vulture—I  think that hoodie was designed for someone without a neck—and hunched through the drizzle back to my car. I flinched when I noticed my sloppy parking job, but the remorse wasn’t strong enough for a do-over. I pulled open the driver’s side door and hunched in, reaching to grope the passenger’s seat for a phone that wasn’t there. Frantically, I began frisking my car, patting the upholstery in the dark, waiting for the slap of skin on a smartphone.

“You have got to be kidding me.” Desperation set in when I realized I couldn’t even call it to hear it ring; it was on silent, and the battery was nearly dead. Then, with sudden clarity, I remembered that it often slid between the two front seats. Mercilessly cramming my hand in the crack, I tickled it out with some trouble and jogged my way back to the lobby, pausing first to glare at the door while I waited for it to decide to slide open.

After much paranoid GPSing and using my phone screen as a flashlight to look at my paper map, I was barely hanging in there at one percent battery life. I didn’t dare attempt a Wi-Fi connection in such a state. So, there in the foyer, I dragged out my charger, plugged it in behind the sofa my bags were beside, and sat down in the speckled, burgundy-brown carpet to find the email.  The receptionist was patient and unconcerned. When I finally procured the receipt, she pulled her brows together thoughtfully for a few seconds, and then decided to give me a reservation at the price I’d been quoted.

“One queen instead of two doubles, though—will that be all right?”

Obviously, I thought. “Perfect, actually,” I said.

Bumping my suitcase across the tile, I passed the complimentary coffee station and made a mental note to come back. The elevator, small, plain, and eerily quiet, took me to the third floor, where, oblivious to the numbered signs, I walked the wrong direction down the hallway to find room 326.  I swiped my key card the wrong way first, and fell against the door to open it, slamming down on the handle with my one free hand, and leaning into the door with my hips, the forward gravity of my backpack saving me from exerting myself to push my way in. I parked my suitcase by the blue upholstered bench where I threw my messenger bag, which jostled the dresser beside it, causing the flatscreen to wobble.  I made another mental note to be more careful. Then, double-checking my pocket for my room key, I went back down for coffee, my mother’s words coming to mind: “You’ve become such a coffee snob, I’ll bet you won’t be able to drink the hotel coffee.” Just watch me. If it’s hot enough, it doesn’t matter what it tastes like. It was hot enough.

I went back to my room, priding myself on turning the right way off the elevator and using my key card correctly the first time. I clicked on the desk lamp, then the bedside lamps, and wondered how—If—they could get these rooms clean with such dim lighting. I adjusted the air conditioning unit, reveling in the fact that I didn’t have to consult anyone else about what temperature they were comfortable with.

Then, basking in my sudden and total possession of a space all my own, I unpacked. Never before have I unpacked with such pomp and certainty. I reveled in the absurdity of pretending complete ownership of a space not mine for such a short time. “It’s only two nights,” I told myself aloud, “but I might as well make myself at home!”

All the spaces were mine. I claimed every flat surface, filled every empty recess. I hung four days’ worth of clothes in the closet. I put pajamas in one drawer, underwear in another, shoes in a third. I put books in the nightstand, and set my lotions and potions in a neat row behind the shell-shaped sink. I threw my sweater over the back of the desk chair, and set my journal and pen on the desk. I added my own pillow to the pillows on the bed, and by the time I was finished, the only unclaimed space was the small blue armchair between the window and the bed. I plopped into it, hunching slightly to accommodate the short reach of my cell phone charger, to text my family and those too unfortunate to join me, that I had safely arrived and settled in.

It was not a very nice hotel, but it wasn’t bad, either. There were only three unpleasant things about my room: the questionably decorative runner across the foot of my bed, which I doubted was ever washed and which I gingerly pinched up and tossed over the blue chair; in the bathroom, a tiny speck of toothpaste in the sink, and a thick layer of dust on the navy tissue-box cover on the back of the toilet that tattled on the last housekeeper’s efficacy. Four, actually: the mini-fridge squeaked.

The hard part was over. I had arrived, I had taken care of business, I had settled in. So, I took a bubble bath, because I could. Then I walked around undressed while I brushed my teeth, because I could. Then I decided to go to bed early, because I could. The vast expanse of white was waiting. Tempting as it was, I remained too responsible to jump on the bed, so I opted for a couple of worm-like wriggle-hops to settle in. I propped myself up with excessive pillows and sat up late, Googling local coffee shops. Then I slept, taking care to remain luxuriously sprawled into the biggest starfish possible.