For context, Otis is a peculiar man with a host of anxieties. In situations where his apprehension is running high, Otis often disassociates and imagines his life to be a movie in which his thoughts and actions are dictated by a narrator—this is one of those situations. This idiosyncrasy helps Otis to feel removed from his life, and any decisions he may have to make, in a way that puts his nerves at ease. Put another way, Otis identifies deeply with the following characters from popular films: Cameron Frye from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Alvy Singer from Annie Hall, and Harry Burns from When Harry Met Sally. These characters shall inform his portrayal in the following scenes.
Otis sits, one Thursday afternoon, facing his therapist, who has no name. Or, rather, she does have a name, but not one that Otis is likely to remember. Otis and the therapist are still getting to know each other; still in that coy, flirtatious phase that both must endure before getting to anything too serious: Does she like me? Did I say something stupid? Does she think I’m beyond repair? Does this shirt make me look fat?
The ticking of the hands on the clock are the only sound in the room, and Otis finds it’s monotonous sound to be comforting, though he recognizes that normal people might find it off-putting. Besides the clock, the room is decorated minimally, save for a few certificates on the wall, a salt lamp in the corner, and a miniature Zen Garden on the small table between them.
Otis finds the ridiculous garden to be off-putting, though he recognizes that normal people might find it comforting.
It takes a great effort on Otis’s part, but he forces his posture to convey nonchalance; one leg draped over the other as he inspects a rogue thread on the cuff of his shirt. The therapist marks the beginning of Otis’s session by poising her pen over a large yellow lined notepad.
“I have a fear,” Otis says, breaking the silence. “It’s become…debilitating.”
The therapist doesn’t answer, but raises her left eyebrow minutely, indicating that her interest has been piqued.
“Elevators,” Otis says simply. He reaches toward the Zen Garden, using the absurd tiny rake to make uniform lines in the sand before setting it back down against the garden’s edge and leaning back in his chair—another display of nonchalance.
“Ah,” she finally replies, as though she understands completely. “You’re claustrophobic.”
It isn’t a question, but rather a statement—and an incorrect one at that.
“No,” he replies. “I love small spaces. I’m comforted by them, actually.”
“Afraid of getting into a faulty one, then,” she offers. “Afraid you’ll be stuck.”
The therapist begins to write, but maintains a certain level of eye-contact with Otis—probably to avoid drawing attention to her notes, though Otis briefly thinks that she’s achieved the opposite.
“Nope,” he replies.
“You’re reaching,” he says, rather flatly.
She makes a show of putting her pen down and pushing the notepad away from her before clasping her hands together and looking at Otis expectantly. Otis peers at the pad of paper, barely making out the word “neurotic” followed by “dramatic” with two hard and straight lines underneath it.
The therapist frowns at Otis’s snooping.
“Why don’t you tell me, then; instead of making me guess?”
Otis considers this a suitable request, so he takes a deep inhale, knowing that any level of nonchalance that he might have maintained up until this point will soon be unraveled. His heart begins to race.
“When I go into an elevator…when there’s strangers inside with me…I never know what to say, or where to look, or what to do with my hands.”
The therapist picks up her pen once again.
“I see,” she says. “So, it’s the social aspect.”
Otis nods. The therapist looks up and to the right for a moment.
“My office is on the sixteenth floor, Otis,” she says, as if he could be unaware of this fact. “Don’t tell me you took the stairs…”
Otis lifts his arm to reveal the now-damp fabric of his shirt from his armpits down the length of his torso.
“Where did this debilitating fear of elevators begin?” she asks. Otis notes that he doesn’t like her tone—slightly mocking and dripping in condescension—but he will tell her anyway.
“It began as most fears do—in the amygdala. As a result of a threat stimulus.”
She raises her left eyebrow again, and draws a third hard line underneath the word “dramatic” on her page.
“But regardless of where it began, it’s been reinforced, over time, by a series of…less-than-ideal exchanges. And we only have 47 minutes left,” Otis trails off.
Truthfully, Otis had already recounted the many traumatic elevator interactions to therapists one and two. Therapist One—no name, brown suit, balding—had simply handed over a written prescription for a medication that Otis was too nervous to fill. Therapist Two—no name, linen tunic, long beard—had given him a small bag of marijuana which Otis was too nervous to smoke. And so, understandably, he felt daunted by the task of recounting the exchanges a third time.
“Well,” the therapist replies after a moment, “if you don’t want to talk about these exchanges, then I’m not entirely sure how I can help.”
Otis stands up and walks over to the large windows that overlook the city. He looks below, at the streets filled with cars and pedestrians, and then above, at the skyscrapers that tower much higher than the sixteenth floor of this particular office building—the reason he needs help. Otis returns to his chair across from the therapist.
“I have received a promotion at work,” Otis begins to monologue. “You think the sixteenth floor is high? Try the thirty-seventh. For nearly a decade I’ve kept my head down at that company—never started work a minute early, and never stayed even a minute late—all to keep my nice, comfortable office on the third floor. But apparently, I’ve impressed the big-wigs on the top floor—apparently, I ‘deserve an office with a view’.”
Otis feels that it is important to note this as a direct quote from said big-wigs.
“What am I going to do?” he continues. “I haven’t accepted it yet, but they are waiting for my answer. My legs can’t take it anymore. Sure, my doctor says my heart is healthy—super healthy, too healthy—but I can’t live like this forever. I have to get my pants tailored to fit around my calves. I have to bring a spare shirt everywhere I go…”
Otis is rambling. He does it often, especially when he is under duress.
The therapist stands, placing her notepad and pen on the table next to the tiny Zen Garden. She motions for Otis to follow her. Otis hesitates, but ultimately stands and follows her out of the door and into the lobby, where the pair find the elevator. She pushes the down arrow, which illuminates at her touch, before turning to face Otis. Otis begins to perspire.
“Exposure therapy,” she says, by way of explanation. “I’ll be there the whole time, though I won’t interfere. Remember, you can always talk about the weather. It’s Thursday, so you can ask about people’s weekend plans. If there’s a dog, ask its name, comment on how cute it is—even if it isn’t cute at all. Lie through your teeth. It’s about survival in there.”
Otis nods his head robotically and wishes he were wearing a collared shirt so he could pull on it—a physical display of internal anxieties that he’s seen others do. The elevator opens its doors with a soft ding. Instinctively, Otis takes a step backwards, but his therapist, with a firm hand, guides him forward.
Once inside, Otis stands—his therapist just slightly behind him—facing the elevator doors. The elevator is old and smells musty, as old things tend to do. The ambient buzzing of the machinery is loud, like a fan on full-blast, and contrasts with the quiet ticking of the clock in the therapist’s office.
Otis makes no move, so his therapist reaches around him to push the button for the first floor. The elevator begins its descent, but stops shortly after, on the 14th floor, where a blonde woman—with no discernable fear of elevators—enters. The woman presses the button for the 12th floor.
Otis knows how this conversation should go.
He knows that he should ask her how her day is. He knows that if he did, she would reply, with a smile, that her day is going fine and he’d be relieved because when he asks someone how they are—especially a stranger—he doesn’t really care about the answer, and he secretly hopes that, if they are indeed having a terrible day, they decide to keep that fact to themselves.
He also knows that they would then stare at the floor for a moment, then back up at the elevator doors. How’s yours? she’d finally say, breaking the silence and reciprocating the question, and he’d reply that it was fine and she’d nod. Then the doors would open, because it wasn’t really that long of a ride to begin with, and she’d have timed her own response perfectly. Then, if he was feeling daring, he’d throw out a casual have a good one, though, again, he wouldn’t care if she did or didn’t have a good one.
But Otis doesn’t have this hypothetical conversation. Let’s observe:
Otis stares silently at the doors, barely daring to breathe. When the doors open, the blonde woman exits without so much as a glance.
“Okay,” the therapist says once they are alone again, “that was…good. But next time, try actually speaking.”
Otis nods. The elevator descends three more floors without interruption. On the nineth floor, an older gentleman enters with a dog who follows at his feet. The dog is small and white, and both of its eyes are cloudy from cataracts and have a mysterious pinkish halo around them. The dog wears a purple dress and two matching bows in its ears.
“Fifth floor please,” the man says by way of greeting.
Otis pushes the button, then, with a big inhale, turns his gaze toward the dog. The dog stares back.
Otis recalls his therapist’s words. Lie through your teeth.
“Your dog is so cute,” Otis says robotically.
“Isn’t she?” the man replies. “Ella here just got a haircut—didn’t you, girl?”
The dog doesn’t appear to have any thoughts worth noting by the way it stares at its human blankly. Otis looks up at the floor designator; they’d only moved one floor. He turns his attention back to the man, forcing a smile.
“And they gave her those bows?”
“Sure did,” the man replies. “She’s such a good little girl. Sits perfectly still while she gets groomed. She’ll even let ‘ya hold her!”
Otis and the man stand there for a beat, smiles frozen on their faces.
Here is what Otis is thinking while he and the man smile at each other: Now what? He’s expecting me to pick up the dog? I don’t want to pick up the dog. But there’s only two floors left. It would kill some time…less time for small-talk that way. And so:
Otis bends over, picking up the dog—because that’s what the man expected him to do.
Only that’s not at all what the man expected him to do, he’s now realizing as he stands, holding Ella awkwardly against his body.
Confusion colors the man’s expression as he watches Otis.
“I…I didn’t think you’d actually do it,” the man says. Otis puts the dog down—slowly, as though releasing a hostage.
The doors open then—mercifully—and the man and his dog exit in a hurry. Otis looks at his therapist whose expression of embarrassment mirrors his own. A new man enters, looking down at his watch and then clicking the button for the first floor. The new man takes out his phone and taps loudly on the screen. Otis decides not to overthink it this time.
“Nice weather we’re having,” Otis says.
“I guess,” the man shrugs. “I prefer the rain.”
The elevator descends to the fourth floor.
“Any fun plans for the weekend?” Otis tries again.
“Funeral,” the man replies gruffly.
The elevator descends to the third floor.
“Got any dogs?” Otis blurts rather desperately.
“Allergic,” the man replies.
The man reaches forward, clicking the button for the second floor. The doors open a moment later and the man exits quickly. Otis’s therapist shifts uncomfortably and clears her throat. Otis repeatedly clicks the “door close” button, willing them to close before someone else enters. As he clicks, he sees a man running towards it.
“Elevator!” the man calls out.
Otis clicks the button over and over.
“Hold the elevator!” the man calls again.
Otis feels it is important to note, in his defense, that it is every man for himself at this point.
The man is gaining on them, and Otis watches as the doors begin to close; closer and closer, until—
The man’s arm shoots out between the doors, prompting them to open once again. He steps inside, a sheen of sweat on his own forehead, and presses the button for the parking garage before turning and facing the door. The “door close” button is still illuminated.
“Nice weather we’re having-“
“You didn’t think I was gonna make it, did you?” the man interrupts coolly.
Otis shrugs, words seeming to have escaped him yet again, and the man crosses his arms and leans against the wall of the elevator.
“Well, I did…so,” the man says, finality in his tone.
The doors open at the first floor, allowing Otis and his therapist to exit at last. Otis pulls out a handkerchief from his back pocket and uses it to pat at the sweat on his forehead. He looks at his therapist expectantly. She opens her mouth a few times before finally speaking.
“Don’t take the promotion,” she says, and they both breathe a sigh of relief as they enter the stairwell.
While working towards her English degree at University of South Carolina Upstate, Lauren Reitz has discovered a passion for writing that she plans to pursue post-graduation. She hopes to become a published author, but is savoring her time as a student and learning her peers, professors, and other writers.