A few years ago, I wanted to plan something special for my wife’s birthday. She’d mentioned she would like to visit Charleston, South Carolina at some point, so, that’s what I decided to do. My only issue was figuring out how I was going to finance a trip like that. Charleston isn’t necessarily a “value” sort of town. I’m using “value” in the same way you’d see that word associated with the word “menu”. Long story short, it’s expensive, and I was broke. So I had to get creative.

I’m a resourceful kind of guy, so I tried to think outside the box. Maybe I could find a cheap(ish) VRBO or AirBnB. I spent the better part of an afternoon researching different areas of Charleston and settled on an AirBnB spot just southwest of downtown. The owner of the rental seemed nice enough through emails, and even gave some tips for places to eat and things to do. Plus the reviews all spoke well of the place. It was a done deal.

Fast forward a couple weeks and we’re heading south on I-95. I had told Allison where we were going, but she had no idea what lie ahead. We got hungry about an hour away and decided to stop for a quick bite to eat, picking a sandwich shop that neither of us had heard of before. We had hoped maybe it was a mom and pop type of place. A hidden gem, perhaps.

The inside looked like a rundown Subway store, but dirtier. Way dirtier. We were already running behind schedule, and we were both a bit hangry, so we decided to just stick with it. We ordered our sandwiches and waited for them at the end of the counter. A few minutes later we were back on the road.

Allison tore into her sandwich immediately while I navigated back onto the highway. After a few bites, I noticed she was picking things off of her sub. Turns out some of the vegetables were maybe a bit older than “fresh” and had an indistinguishable slime to them. The lettuce was starting to brown. The bread was pretty stale. I was able to corroborate the lack of quality a few minutes down the road once I got a chance to take a bite. It was gross. We both choked down as much as we could stomach to drive the hunger away, and I made a comment like, “Well, if this is the worst thing to happen this trip, I’m just fine with that.”

Ever the optimist.

We finally got to Charleston. As we neared the AirBnB, Allison started to wonder where we were going. When I finally told her where we were staying, thoughts paraded through her mind of a cute, cozy apartment in downtown Charleston, where we could spend a romantic weekend together. In reality, I myself didn’t have the clearest idea of where we were staying. I thought (or maybe imagined) this place was a private apartment that was adjacent to an older house. The amenities listed a private bathroom, breakfast nook, and a private entrance for the guests. So, I don’t know. It seemed like it’d be, well, private.

When the GPS told us to turn into a subdivision full of typical suburban homes, Allison started getting uncomfortable. I could sense it and hoped maybe our cute/cozy apartment was somewhere beyond the subdivision. Instead, the route ended in front of a typical two-story home. In the driveway was a man, maybe 5’6″ or so, who was covered head to toe with mud and grime. Power-washing his driveway. It was a curious choice on his part given that they were expecting company (meaning, us). He saw us pull up through his mud-spotted glasses and smiled crazily at us. Despite feeling incredibly awkward about the whole situation, I made a move to get out of the car.

“Is this where we’re staying?” My poor wife was not expecting this. Can’t say I blame her, because it was pretty weird. We talked for a minute or so and I finally convinced her to at least come check the place out, but I could tell she was very hesitant. She agreed, with the caveat that the bags had to stay in the car.

When we got to the front door, the dirtball’s wife greeted us with a blank stare. A “hello” would have been nice. But instead, she simply asked, “Where are your bags?” I fumbled through some sort of excuse, but I’m pretty sure she knew I was lying. “Well, okay, if that’s what you want to do, I guess,” she said in quite possibly the most condescending tone I’ve ever heard. Allison, still completely silent, was chewing her bottom lip and staring blankly. I’ve seen this look many times. It means she’s made a decision and she’s just waiting for the opportunity to tell me what it is.

“No shoes in the house.” I don’t want to overstate the vibe here, but her tone of voice was slightly homicidal. Both Allison and I quickly took off our shoes before looking around the house, which was filled with decades-old clutter, random doilies, pink curtains, shag carpet. And it had that smell. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s the one that smells like a mix of Gold Bond and ammonia. This was getting worse.

The lady brought us upstairs and showed us the room. This wasn’t a private apartment adjacent the house. Nope. This was the guest bedroom in the empty-nesters’ home. The bathroom? Down the hall to the right, but it’s all ours. Evidently, their idea of a “private bathroom” simply meant it had a door that closed it off to the rest of the house. In the morning, we could pick between a couple options for breakfast and could eat on the back deck or in the breakfast nook in their kitchen. Next to their cats’ water dishes.

Standing in the bedroom upstairs, Allison listened to the spiel intently, nodding politely with that “absolutely not” look in her eyes. Our host left us alone for a few minutes, which gave Allison the opportunity to get something off her chest.

“Are you serious, Sam? This is your idea of a ‘romantic getaway’!? I can promise you there’ll be none of that if we stay here! What if they have cameras hidden in here?”

A few short minutes later we were back in the car. My pride was hurt. My ego injured. I was still convinced we could work things out with this place and everything would be fine. It took 10 full minutes of Allison telling me she wasn’t staying there for me to finally realize that it would be impossible to convince her otherwise. And I still couldn’t wrap my head around it.

The mood was incredibly tense – not exactly what I’d planned – and we needed some time to calm down. With no real plan, and no idea where to start, we went to a tea plantation I had checked out online. It was thirty minutes away, in the middle of nowhere. My idea was that we’d go check out the place and try to figure out what we wanted to do.

We toured the tea plantation, sipped some tea, and walked around the property allowing some of the tension to slowly dissipate. One thing you need to know here – Allison and I do not have smartphones. In 2018. Still. So back in 2015 when this all happened, we definitely didn’t have access to the internet from our phones at a tea plantation in the middle of Nowhere, South Carolina. So, we did what people used to do in 2002. We phoned a friend.

Well, my sister, actually. We asked her to look up some hotels in the area that we could call to book a room. She was little to no help because she kept accidentally giving us the phone number to Expedia.com rather than the actual hotels. She has a degree, folks.

After calling Expedia at least four times, I got fed up and decided we needed to go somewhere that had the internet. At this point it was getting pretty late in the afternoon and we were both getting hungry again after only eating about half of our lunch. But we were on a mission. We needed to find a place to sleep.

Just to give you an idea of where my head was, we toyed with the idea of going downtown to eat dinner, then heading home. That’s a five hour drive. We legitimately considered that option. There wasn’t much hope. But finally, by a stroke of luck, I spotted a public library. Without telling Allison, I jerked the wheel and crossed a couple lanes of traffic to turn into the library. “What are you doing?” Allison asked.

“The library has internet.”

All the memories of middle school came flooding back in that moment. I hadn’t used the internet at the library since then. But I can tell you one thing – It’s no less embarrassing as an adult. But hell, what other option did we have? Allison got confused and thought we needed a library card to get online, so she started filling out an application. When we dropped it off at the front desk, they realized we didn’t live in the area. So they just gave us a guest pass. That was another ten minutes we’d never get back, and ten minutes closer to starvation.

We spent the first 30 minutes calling around to every hotel we could find that had rooms for less than $200 per night, which wasn’t many. Allison’s birthday sometimes falls on Memorial Day weekend depending on the year. 2015 was one of those years. To make things more difficult, there was a huge art fair all weekend and all the hotels were full.

After getting logged back in for another 30 minutes of web time, we found a hotel about 15 minutes away from downtown Charleston. The website showed they had a room available, so we called them up. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. They were booked solid.

But…the website said there was vacancy. We called back and asked if there were any rooms on hold or something like that, because the website showed rooms available. No, was the answer. They were booked.

But…the website said there was vacancy. At this point in the day, both of us are just swimming in frustration. Allison can’t believe I tried to book a room with a serial killer (her exact words), and I’m pissed because my super-duper romantic birthday weekend has been spent arguing about serial killers and surfing the web at a library. You can’t make this up. We were a modern day Mary and Joseph. Minus baby Jesus, of course.

I refreshed the page a few more times. The website STILL said there was vacancy. I looked at Allison, seeing a withdrawn and emotionally drained wife. She just wanted this to be over with. And I did too. So I booked the room online, making sure to print off the confirmation page.

We ran out to the car and sped off toward the hotel. We knew the hotel was booked solid, but we’d been able to get a confirmation that we’d just booked a room. Worst case, if we got there and they said it was an accident, we would just have to make a huge fuss about it (because we had confirmation!) and they’d have to make something work. That, or we’d be driving home at midnight. And trust me, neither of us are that kind of person. We don’t complain about anything. But that day? Yeah, there was going to be hell to pay for anyone who wanted to deny us a room.

I rehearsed what I’d say at the front desk the entire time we drove. Twenty minutes later I pulled under the portico and took a deep breath. Show time.

We walked in like we were supposed to be there, but we both feared this might not go our way. All we could do was pray. Sure enough, they had our reservation and began the check-in process. Allison and I shots glances at each other, trying our hardest to keep straight faces. This day was just too crazy, and it was finally starting to look up!

The clerk handed over our room key cards and we both visibly let our shoulders relax. It had been such a tense day, starting with those god-awful sandwiches, the serial killers, freaking Expedia, hot tea on a 90 degree day, the library, hunger, and finally, we were done. Well, almost. I still had to call the AirBnB owner and tell her we weren’t coming back. I made up some lame excuse about us having to head back home early due to a “family emergency”. Which was partially true – if we would have stayed there, my marriage would have been in jeopardy.

She didn’t seem to care, but mentioned that she couldn’t refund the money, but could offer us the opportunity to reschedule. So yeah, money horribly spent.

We got our bags and headed upstairs. The hunger had set in completely now and we were both famished. Add that to the mental and emotional exhaustion from the day, and we were ready to crack open a bottle of wine, get cleaned up a little, and head to dinner. Finally.

We got to our room and I inserted the key. Nothing. I tried it again, but still nothing. I tried to see if any light was coming from inside the room through the peep hole, which if you’ve ever tried that from the outside looking in, there are few things in this world that will make you feel dumber than you feel in that moment. Like, what were you expecting? Don’t lie to yourself, you know you’ve done it. And you’ve felt like an idiot the exact second you put your eye to it. It’s okay. It happens.

I tried the second key and still nothing. My first anxiety-riddled thought was that they somehow knew we had frauded our way into a room, and now, when I went back down to get the keys reconfigured, they’d laugh in my face and security would escort me out of the hotel.  But, no, that couldn’t happen, could it? I went back down to the front desk while Allison waited outside the door.

I got back upstairs with a fresh set of keys, and sure enough, I got the little green light and heard the lock click open. I know it might not seem like a big deal, but that moment was such a relief. I gave Allison a smile and she melted in relief as well. I pushed the door open and…

What the Fuuuuuu?????

The room was dark, curtains closed. On the floor and on the table next to the television were open suitcases. I was in someone else’s room. My worst fear had been realized.

I backed out immediately at the same moment that Allison saw what I had seen. I pulled the door shut and stood there, frozen in shock. Then, I hung my head to my chest. We’d given it our best shot, I thought. We had a good run. I looked at my stunned and horrified wife while the same thought passed through both of our minds at once. The hotel really was booked. And the room we illegitimately booked online was already occupied. We were screwed.

No matter how hard you try, no matter how much effort, or how much brainpower you put into something, sometimes it just doesn’t matter. We’d done everything we could, and I was completely beaten. I gave up in that moment. Smiling like a maniac (because it’s better than crying), I started trying to figure out what time we’d actually get home once we left the city after dinner.

But Allison, my best friend, had that look. Staring off into space, she was chewing her bottom lip and nodding her head, and she was about to tell me what she’d just decided.

“No, Sammy. This is a mistake. They have to give us a room now. They just gave us the keys to someone else’s room! There has to be some sort of privacy laws about that, Sam! We can complain, or threaten, or whatever, and they are going to give us a freaking room!!

I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I was already crushed. But maybe she was right. (Editor’s note: Who are you trying to kid, babe? I’m always right.) The floor lobby was just around the corner and there was a phone on the table. I called down to the front desk and told them our room – the room they gave me keys to – was occupied. The clerk almost dropped the phone, which made me laugh. They did a little research and realized they’d written the wrong number on the sheet. It was 212, not 210. She rushed to meet us on the second floor with new keys to room 212, and even opened the door and went into the room to make sure it was empty. And it was. Hallelujah!

As soon as the door closed behind us, Allison uncorked a bottle of wine and we drank the entire thing while we got ready for dinner. She deserved it. After everything I put her through, she needed every last drop.

The rest of the weekend is a blur to me, but overall it turned out okay. I’ll never forget some of the details of that first day, though. Because of it, Allison established two new rules for me when planning a getaway. First, “go with what you know”. The less variance, the better. Second, ask yourself the questions “Is it clean?”  and “Is it safe?” If the answer to both of those questions is “yes”, more than likely, things will work out just fine. Maybe next time I’ll just tell her the plan before we go.

So, uhh, if anyone needs a free place to stay in Charleston for a couple nights, I can hook you up. Private bathroom, breakfast nook, private entrance. Just be sure to keep your head on a swivel.