Between the first floor and the eighth, my mother lived out her dreams with another man. Those twenty seconds of elevator time stretched into an entire lifespan as I watched her look into the eyes of her silver-haired, white-linen-wearing would-be lover and imagine what would be different if he was hers, or if the two of them strode off the elevator and down the endless shoreline just outside the hotel.
It was odd to see her disarmed in such a way, odd to see her unfurl under the warm gaze and witty remarks of a good-looking stranger. When the doors opened to our floor, she and I got off silently and back into our life outside the elevator shaft. We walked into our hotel room and sat on the balcony overlooking that same endless shoreline. With her chin resting on her hand and a playful look in her eyes, she turned to me and said “He was a nice man.” I nodded. “He was.”
We said nothing more about it and didn’t see him on the few other elevator rides we took. But at that moment when my mom turned her head to me after our encounter with him, I saw an entirely different world flash in her eyes. In it were a past and a future where she and the elevator man lived happily: her perpetually making good jokes, him perpetually laughing at them in his white linen, the two of them perpetually loving one another as happy, funny, well-dressed people should be loved.
There were no woes or flaws, and any difficulties were solved by the both of them, bound together in passionate, affectionate devotion. Elevator Man could fix my mom’s car, darn a sock and cook a tasty meal. He could hike just as long and just as far as she could, and he loved going to see live music. He dressed well — even when he didn’t wear white linen — and he kept himself well-groomed.
Elevator Man kissed my mother on the cheek when she got home from work and never had crumbs stuck in the corners of his mouth. He did her laundry and told her how beautiful she looked in that one dress as he folded it — and he really meant it. Elevator Man told my mom how he liked her crow’s feet, liked how her eyes switched from green to blue to hazel, liked her high Irish cheekbones and her loud Irish laugh.
Elevator Man could still get it on, even though he was nearing sixty. He could hold my mom close and they would reminisce about when they were twenty-one, thirty-seven, forty-two. They’d giggle about him visiting her as she worked at the burger joint in their college town. They’d thank God they made it through her mother’s death fifteen years before. They’d poke fun at how his dad always politely refused my mother’s cooking. And they’d look forward to growing older still: to retiring, to walking slowly down the sidewalk together and to the small cabin they hoped to buy with their savings.
That life existed only inside the elevator — inside my mother’s eyes for a moment after she’d chatted with a friendly stranger. The longer she and I sat there on the balcony, the more we sunk back into ourselves, and bit by bit, Elevator Man just became another passerby going about his own little life somewhere. My mother took her hand out from under her chin, squeezed my arm and smiled. I watched the side of her face as she stared off the balcony, her cheekbones proud and her crow’s feet delicate.
It is strange how quickly we can imagine other lifetimes, strange how quickly we can serve up alternatives to whatever day-to-day realities we live. It’s possible my mother never envisioned this elevator world — possible it’s just a figment of my own imagination. But even if she didn’t, or even if the world she created for herself and her lover looked different than the one I created, it wouldn’t matter. We create entire worlds for strangers in the blink of an eye, briefly fall in love with the man in the elevator with us, construct different versions of ourselves in a split second.
It seems natural enough, writing a little fiction here and there to take the edge off some of the harsher realities of our lives. For my mother, it is the harshness of being an aging woman in this world — the world without Elevator Man. It is the sunspots on the backs of hands, the thinning strands of hair, the almighty maxims that beauty is for youth, that love is for youth, that sexuality is for youth. For those twenty seconds in the elevator there exists a place for my mother to be all those things at fifty-seven. For those twenty seconds in the elevator, there exists a man who loves the lines of her smile and the curves of her softened arms as much as I do.
Quickly, the seconds stretch into a long, magical lifetime: one where a woman can be loved in her age the same way she was loved in her youth — one where a woman can love herself in her age the same way she did in youth. There, the witches, old maids and spinsters become goddesses; Lady Godiva rides through England with her white hair cropped close to her head and her open breasts worn by the wariness of womanhood; old wives’ tales hold the same weight as Bible verses. This is the world of Elevator Man — in full color and just at the end of my mother’s fingertips.
One day my own Elevator Man may come and sweep me off my feet too. Maybe he will replace someone I’ve lost, or make up for someone I’ve yet to find — it’s hard to say. Perhaps he will run his fingers through my graying hair or chop the onions for me when my knuckles curl up too tight. Maybe he will just be a handsome stranger to imagine a name for as I wait for the ding to sound and the doors to open.
Whatever it is, it will last no more than a few minutes and never leave the confines of the elevator shaft. Then I will walk out and back into reality. Real sunlight will flood back in, real sounds will replace the elevator music and real people — for whom there is not enough time to imagine a name, a life or a love — will walk past me. I will re-enter life as I know it, and Elevator Man will re-enter his, too. But there will always exist that impossible world which I or whoever else briefly imagined inside the elevator; there will always exist that small space where fantasy supersedes the reality we face when the doors slide open.
Just as it is a comfort to imagine these worlds for a moment, it is a comfort, too, to save them only for rides from the first floor to the eighth. Outside of those bounds — on flights of stairs, on balconies — there may be a daughter who loves the way your big teeth shine as your head tilts back in laughter. There may be a man — a real one — who, despite a crumb or two stuck in the corner of his mouth, will help you carry your boundless, aging beauty through the rest of your days as the two of you remember the palpable, messy, full life you’ve shared.