Essays & Stories


Imagine the Alternative: A Story for Lovebirds

love stories Jul 21, 2022

Leaving town is more than trip planning. It’s absence planning.

When I landed two hours before Kyle at the Houston airport by way of Salt Lake City by way of Portland, Oregon, I wasn’t just at the right place at the right time.

I’d coordinated vacation schedules and parenting calendars with my ex-husband. I’d scheduled my teen helper to walk the dog, water the plants, supervise the chickens, and put the garbage at the curb on Thursday night. I’d reminded my college kid to give the cat his medicine. I’d mostly synced my flight with Kyle’s arrival from Atlanta by way of Memphis by way of Jonesboro, Arkansas. I’d cleaned the refrigerator, loaded the automatic cat feeder. I’d remembered the wet sheets in the washer.

None of this relates to my packing list. Everyone knows that you can pick up what you left behind but you can’t easily undo what gets forgotten. Or in the case of my two Waste Management fails in the last month, resulting in 6-weeks of old garbage simmering in the driveway, what gets forgotten can become a malodorous biohazard that makes you the jerk of the neighborhood.

Two hours to kill at the Delta terminal seemed like a small tax to pay when my big love was scheduled to walk off a plane and into my arms. Over the five years we’d been together, Kyle had often traveled for work. In our first year, he’d averaged 11 days a month on the road. He’d also always lived 44 miles and one whole hour away from me. Traffic and parenting schedules sometimes made the stretches apart longer. But somewhere along the way, we’d adopted a spirit of optimism about what counted as obstacles, and the time apart transformed into more of a healthy yearning rather than an itchy case of FOMO.

Imaginative problem solving has a way of spilling over into how you see the world. We soon found pockets of time tucked inside long weekends spent in his town or mine and in little getaways that hitched a ride on the back of business trips.

This present adventure was a parable featuring the rewards of patience and sacrifice: One year of canceled plans due to a global pandemic, four airports to reach our destination, and three nights stolen from Kyle’s travel week meant 48 full hours to explore Texas’s Galveston Island. Still, my inner toddler kept asking how much longer, while my resident sage relied more on inspiration: “What’s two hours of creative waiting when you’ve got your whole life?” she said with mystery.

Thankfully, I was not solely reliant on the opposing forces of my personality. I had a strategy. George Jeffrey, my Delta seat mate, had already schooled me on the Houston terminal situation on our flight from Salt Lake. We’d bonded almost instantly over my hat, a chocolate summer fedora. “Not everyone can pull that off,” he said and pointed at my head. He took the window seat, then showed me his buddy’s Instagram, a modern milliner who makes Western hats for Utah’s fashion forward.

On the two hour flight, we covered a lot of territory. We discovered a shared love of food, parenting, and Brené Brown. During snack time, the conversation turned philosophical in our contemplation of his choice of airplane cookie and the apple-mango fruit snack I took from my backpack. The comparison made George Jeffrey feel ashamed, so I offered him a confession. Before I’d boarded in Salt Lake, I whispered, I’d walked the airport searching for a sweet treat that looked delicious but could also pass for healthy. “I wanted a cookie to help me deal with the boredom of flying,” I explained. “But on the other hand, I hate feeling like crap.” After spending my last layover mediating between my head and heart, I underscored that what he now saw was only the first thin layer of a complicated reality. I was the worst kind of hypocrite, wanting the cookie and settling for the fruit leather.

It was easy to say these kinds of things to George Jeffrey. He’d recently returned to graduate school to study couples and family counseling, with a special interest in the human male’s emotional landscape and the legacy of family systems. We swapped stories about our childhoods—my coming-of-age in Georgia, his as the son of a military man. Like old friends, we caught each other up on events since then. I hid my surprise that he and his wife Mary Alice parent no less than eight children in their combined families. He, on the other hand, was thrown off when my oldest clocked in at 25. “With your mask on, I can only see your eyes,” said George Jeffrey. “From where I’m sitting, you barely look 20.”

“I am very old from my nose down,” I said.

He wasn’t just a wise listener. George Jeffrey was also great at practical life tips. In my case, that meant breaking down my Houston airport food options and giving me the inside scoop for my two-hour delayed start.

Take the Sky Train from Terminal A to Terminal C. Eat at the best IAH establishments. Return to Terminal A before Kyle’s arrival.

George Jeffrey and I parted at Gate A12 with the kind of good-byes one does after a 30,000 foot conversation about your life’s most precious topics. Swiftly and without emotion. If it were polite to have said “Have a nice life,” we would have done just that. Those of us experienced at talking to strangers know that it is a one way ticket. Practice makes you nimble at grabbing hold then letting go when the trip is over.

I looked left then right from the edge of A12, then followed the signs to the Sky Train, careful not to the exit at Baggage Claim, one of George Jeffrey’s friendly warnings.

All of this took little effort, and upon arrival at Terminal C, I paced the gallery of restaurants feeling like a Food Network explorer tasked with finding the hidden gems inside international airports. Oven-fired pizza or Asian-Fusion potstickers? White-clothed tables or jazzy cocktails and warm olives?

But the farther away I got from Gate A15, the more the travel day seemed to veer away from Kyle. Could I really sink into a leather club chair and savor a glass of pinot noir or indulge in a half loaf of buttered sourdough, when his Atlanta flight was aimed at a location more than two sky trains away? The toddler and sage were no help this time. It was the boss, disliked for her cookie stoicism but prized for her romantic tendency, who stepped forward. No, she said. No, you cannot.

I turned around.

The A Terminal’s Smokehouse didn’t really serve food but their glass case offered a sprinkle of sandwich wraps and chopped salads. They also served whiskey, which at 6 PM CDT had felt too early but at 6:45 PM CDT was now sounding just right. Plus, what lay on the other side of the venue’s faux timbers was my intended target. I was but a bar top from Kyle’s masked smile. With one hour and change to go, I shimmied my roller bag between two high-backed stools and sat down.

Allow me to fast forward. The bartender makes me an old fashioned with Templeton Rye. I read some from the Sisters of the Resistance. I ask if his name is really “Chief,” the label printed on his work apron. It’s not. Hector is originally from Houston, married with three kids. He knows all about Galveston too. It’s 7:45pm and I’m getting those ‘what a day, what the heck, YOLO-type’ feelings, so I order another round and close out. Hector delivers my tab with a big smile. He hopes I don’t mind that he’s used up the extra left in the bottle to enhance my old fashioned. At 8:15pm, the most gorgeous, exhausted man in the world walks into a bar. Kyle sizes up the situation and says to relax and finish my drink while he grabs his bags. “But I want to go where you’re going” I say. Hector, the consummate host, has a plan. He packs up my drink, don’t worry, he says, it’s totally regulation, he says, here you go, he says, safe travels, he says, enjoy Galveston.

So I walked around the airport like one of those party ladies you sometimes see. One man and his wife even pretended to crash into me with a hand truck packed with rum cases in some effort to emphasize we were the same brand of party time. I’d never really walked around in public carrying a live cocktail unless you count the annual parent brigade I join each Halloween to chaperone the trick-or-treating. This imposter syndrome coupled with the challenge of drinking, walking, and mask-wearing eventually made the cup more ornamental than practical. Shedding the drink was harder than you might think. My bill at Smokehouse rang in at roughly double my expectations and my brain kept doing that weird math where you calculate the cost of something you already plan to throw away. At the next bathroom stop, I studied myself in the mirror then tossed the drink into the waste bin. I was not a very good party lady.

Kyle’s night was turning out different. We’d begun the unsexy part of traveling. You’re tired. You’re hungry. You’re instructed to take a bus to get a rental car.

The line at National was deceivingly short and pleasantly air-conditioned. The line to get the keys to our car, on the other hand, was excessively long and bloody hot. Like us, many there had the membership that should have afforded us grab-and-go privileges, except on this particular August night, the parking lot was empty. Or almost empty.

Word traveled down the line that the silver Jeep Wrangler parked directly in front of us had been returned by a National client and started up great and was totally available and at a discount. There was just one problem: no one could find the key.

For several hours, staff and car renters alike had checked seat pockets and dashboard crevices in search of the elusive key fob. Everyone had come up short, which prompted me to elbow Kyle and announce:

“I bet we could find it.”

“People have looked for hours. You’re not going to find it.”

“Not just me. Me and you. We got this.”

Houston wasn’t the only trip we’d taken since the world had temporarily reopened. In fact, on these other occasions we’d been able to leave Portland and return together. During these flights, we’d sat side-by-side watching movies or reading books. And when we became extra fidgety and yearning for land, we channeled our desires into Hidden Objects — one of the free puzzle games produced by Delta Airlines and available on your flight monitor. For the uninitiated, this game involves looking for things like camouflaged socks, shadowed paperclips, and stenciled insects amidst ever more challenging backdrops of messy kitchens, cluttered bedrooms, and darkened garages. In short, a missing key lost in a vacuumed SUV would be a piece of cake. We had trained for this.

Even through his layered neck gaiter, I could see Kyle straining for patience with me. For some men, it would have been full blown annoyance. But Kyle’s legendary restraint was solid. “Go ahead, if you want.”

I conducted a short interview with the National rep to confirm the facts — yes, the key absolutely was in the car or else it wouldn’t start. Yes, we really could look for it. And no, getting out of line wouldn’t make the whole waiting game start over.

That was enough for me. It was in there. I would find it. We would be exiting the airport parking garage in a jeep destined for the Gulf Coast. Win. Win. Win.

I pressed the ignition to verify the information given. Like all detectives, I require proof. The engine revved just as the back passenger door opened and Kyle began scouring the floorboards.

I looked behind visors. I felt between the console and the seats. I stuffed my hand inside the driver’s seat crease, reaching and ready to grasp my prize. I got out, got down on my knees, looked up and inside the tire wheels. Kyle had his own list of hiding places. We switched spots, doubled back, and scratched our heads, then did everything all over again.

We got back in line.

“We’re very sorry that you have to wait,” said the National rep. “It’s been a tough night.”

“It was worth a try,” I shrugged.

“Our manager has agreed to pay your Uber fare to your destination and back to the airport. Maybe you’d like to come tomorrow to get your rental car?”

Our drive was over an hour. We needed a car to get around Galveston. And we were hungry.

“You’re also welcome to take one of our 15-seat passenger vans,” he added and gestured toward a fleet of large white shuttle vans parked to the far right.

Every couple has a way of balancing each other out. Kyle knows, for instance, that yellow makes me stupid happy and that I possess an evidenced low alcohol tolerance. And I know that he talks to the deer that live on his property and suffers from hanger.

We were running out of time. We’d traveled by airplane, train, and bus to this very moment and so far the night was heavily scored in favor of a relentless travel day. If Kyle didn’t get food soon, we were gonna lose.

It was quick decision to climb into the passenger van. Sure, the 18-foot vehicle was designed for youth groups and retirement tours but to us it was a symbol of our flexibility, our persistence, our willingness to take what life throws at you, and even when on fumes, to run with it.

You know that scene in the movies when the couple tries to find their way around an unfamiliar city? The one where one person drives while the other holds a map and suggests bad directions? Most of the time the couple is lost and the wrong turns reflect their mission to find their destination but in a lesser known scene the couple isn’t lost — they just don’t know where they are, don’t know where to go, and really need to get somewhere fast.

In this low-budget version, the couple has recently sped away from an airport parking garage in a large white van. One partner is sobering up and smiling for both of them. The other is using his remaining energy to get laser focused on food. One would eat anything, a whopper, a bucket of KFC, hell, in a pinch, he’d been known to make do with a run down the candy aisle of the gas station. The other, well, she couldn’t even buy a cookie at the airport because sugar and corn and potato are found in everything except the acceptable food list from her doctor.

Now imagine this situation, and let’s face it, that’s exactly what it is, set at 9:42pm in a city where pandemic hours mean most places have already closed up shop on a Tuesday. The one driving the passenger van across a sophisticated, criss-crossing highway system designed by engineers who grew up building elaborate Brio train sets puts the other one in charge of picking a restaurant from Google maps. The one reading menus has built a whole identity out of being easy to work with from a misunderstanding with her family that inspired them to call her Picky Viki. In addition to this totally unfair stereotype, this same person has a very real, documented problem. Walk her into a room, turn her around, and then tell her to find her same way back. 98% of the time she loses all sense of direction.

Now the weird thing is the driver, with full knowledge, decides she’s the right fit for choosing a restaurant and telling him where to go. Let’s just say that when the hungrier of the two realizes she’d been selecting from Google’s 4-star restaurants — everyone and their brother knows that four stars mean awful food and no, it’s not at all like the 5-star rating system used by hotels — the freeway ramp gods get pissed. No way are these two humans, plus those 13 missing persons, getting anywhere near a restaurant.

“I’m sorry, honey. I don’t know how to use the map to find somewhere to eat.”

“It’s okay,” Kyle said and patted my knee. “What about Denny’s? Could you eat there?”

In a situation like this, there’s only one correct answer.

There’s a peace that comes when you finally make a decision. When you have one driver and one map and one plan. We sat quietly, reversed directions, and pointed like tourists at the brightly illuminated Denny’s sign as we overshot the exit one more time.

Summer in Texas is hot hot, even at 9:52pm. I hopped down from our air-conditioned capsule, and Kyle took my hand and gave me a weak smile. “Hungry?” he asked, and led me toward the double doors. I could even see the staff cheerfully washing the windows. It was as if they were waving.

“Wait. I almost forgot,” Kyle said and turned back for the van. “I got you something.” He quickly opened the side door, manhandled his suitcase, and unzipped the main compartment. Between his perfectly folded clothes, he freed a single yellow rose.

“Remember that barbecue place I told you about in Memphis, the Pig on Beale?” he asked. “Tonight there was a man there, standing out front, handing out roses and asking for donations,” Kyle said, as he gestured toward the miracle he held in his hands. “I saw the yellow one and thought of you.”

Kyle is very tall, and a bear hug usually involves some strategy and a calf workout. But this time, my body floated effortlessly upward, the 14 inches between us collapsing into nothingness before the weight of our well-meaning and imperfect hearts. I was careful not to smash my flower.

I was sniffing my rose and already crying when they told us Denny’s was closed. It was a casual acceptance, a simple shrug at a playful universe that could not be bothered to manifest something as ordinary as late dinner on a Tuesday. Kyle was grinning, already prepared. “Google maps says there’s s a Chick-Fil-A nearby.”


The frogs and crickets were the only ones up when we arrived at the guest house on Galveston Island. We woke the next morning to the whir of the ceiling fan, the glow of warm sunshine, and a bedroom view of the bay. We spent two days identifying seabirds, hunting seashells, marveling at Antebellum mansions, discovering the island’s haunted past, sampling the Gulf shrimp, the red snapper, the Tile fish, toasting the pleasures of the present, dreaming about the somedays in our future.

Friday at 5 am, Kyle left to speak at a Houston conference in the middle of a thunderstorm. He took the luggage, the passenger van, and circled the rendezvous point on the map. I slept in, traded my swimsuit for a travel skort, and converted my Turkish towel into an airplane wrap.

Leaving the guest house took no less than 5-minutes. Strip the beds, load the dishwasher, set the thermostat, and lock the door behind you. How simple it is leave somewhere when someone else has done all the thinking for you. Even Kyle had picked our next location. All I had to do was arrange transportation and arrive at the chosen Starbucks by 12pm.

When Andrés, my Uber driver, missed the address I told him to stay put. I grabbed the kitchen garbage, deposited the trash into the assigned receptacle, and walked outside. His 2017 white Hyundai Sonata was parked on the other side of a narrow wetland, partitioned by a low fence. While the distance between was less than 50 feet, the pavement between us was at least two miles. I held up my index finger, signaling for him to wait. I studied the space between the marshy grass and the fence post, then reached my left leg forward with intention. Getting over in my sandals and backpack was part Pilates, part humility. “Don’t worry,” I told him, when I finally opened the back door. “Finding this place is hard,” I said, “and getting lost is easy.” It happens to the best of us.

About Victoria Payne

Victoria is a writer, speaker, co-founder of Mission Flow, and the creator of the Naked Librarian. Her work explores health and happiness, personal and professional development, and the power of knowing and telling your own story.