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The Hotel Estrellade
The Hotel Estrellada
As far back as I can remember, I have always lived at The Hotel Estrellada, a beautiful resort in California, the land of eternal summer. It was an unorthodox childhood. From late May to early September, when the other boys were playing in the sandlot behind the school, I worked at Estrellada. I can still hear the crashing waves and feel the sand between my toes. I was a child of the sea. My eyes the deep navy blue of the ocean, my hair the shades of the sandy shores. My mother and I lived in a small cottage by the golf course, and times were hard and sometimes ends were impossible to meet. She'd work as a housekeeper year round and I would spend the whole summer caddying for the businessmen, working in the restaurant, taking room service orders, and running errands for the guests, all for whatever change I could scrounge up. I don't remember minding the constant work. In fact, I had the time of my life. I learned more those hazy summers than I did from my hard-earned college education. The many lessons Estrellada taught me were invaluable. I learned precisely how many times the carousel at the carnival would turn per song. I learned the most efficient way of applying sunscreen. I learned the exact time of high tide's arrival and departure. Waiting on the gossipy old biddies in the restaurant taught me that some people never grow out of high school. Watching the businessman seal deals over golf taught me to always read the fine print. Complimenting the trophy wives' sundresses for extra pocket money taught me that flattery goes a long way. I learned the ways of the world simply by watching the country's elite during their vacation. I learned how different people can be one summer from the next, only one year later. The same families came back, the same times, year after year. I saw their joys and sorrows, their celebrations and their tragedies. I learned that sadness is universal, and the wealthy are no more invulnerable than my mother and I, so long ago. I learned to grow up. I learned to take chances and sometimes lose everything. I learned to fall in love, and I also learned when to let go.
The Crawford's had been coming to Hotel Estrellada since before I was born. I used to think Mrs. Crawford was the prettiest lady in the whole world. But that was when I was six. By the age of ten, I saw her as simply an ungracefully aging beauty that desperately clung to youth with the aid of a vast accumulation of plastic surgeries. Nevertheless, she was my first love. I would spend my days trying to get her to notice me. Similar to most young boys in the blush of first love, I was certain that bad attention was far superior to no attention. To me, the possibilities were boundless. In my eyes, the only thing keeping us apart was forty-two years of age (I was eight). I would save my most complicated cannon balls into the pool for her beautiful, contact-tinted blue eyes only. Any room service she ordered would be top priority on my watch. When I delivered the frequent sidecars up to her suite, she would toss me a quarter and slam the door in my face. Still, my love prevailed. The imposing Mr. Crawford was twenty years her senior, and I can honestly say I have never been more frightened of anyone else. A shrewd businessman, he had a collection of enemies that rivaled his wife's number of plastic surgeons. Surely my sweet Mrs. Crawford deserved a better man. And surely I was that man.
By the age of nine, my infatuation with Mrs. Crawford had reached ridiculously epic proportions. Then I had an epiphany. That epiphany came in the form of an eight-year old girl. It was the beginning of a new summer. My Mrs. Crawford has just arrived to complete my happiness. I knew it-I just knew it; this would be the year she would realize our destinies were intertwined by fate. She has just arrived, but the second I saw her, something was different: the alluring sharpness of her nose has morphed into a delicate upturn. I knew I had remembered her face perfectly since the summer before: I had memorized every inch of that face. But still, I knew something was wrong. I must have been staring as I unknowingly rubbed the bridge of my own nose because the next thing I remembered was the sound of a girl's condescending voice. 'It's called a nose job,' the girl snapped bluntly. The girl went on to describe, in intricately grotesque detail, the process of rhinoplasty. My mind forever was seared with images I carry with me even today. ''and finally they harvest cartilage from the septum to make sure your nose doesn't collapse in,' the girl declared, as she finished the vivid depiction. My mouth dropped with horror. 'And believe me,' she continued, 'that is not the first surgery she's gotten. I heard there was some nasty complications with the implants in her''she was cut off by the sound of my involuntary gagging. She laughed cruelly and turned to walk away and with a flip of her dark curls, said, 'By the way, I'm Lily.' And with that, the spell of Mrs. Crawford was gone, but only to be replaced with Lily-fever.
Lily Baldwin was the daughter of Jack Baldwin, one of the most prominent defense attorneys in California. Jack Baldwin's Lily wore immaculately starched sundresses and ribbons in her hair. My Lily wore torn blue jeans and dirty t-shirts. Jack Baldwin's Lily spoke like an angel. My Lily swore like a sailor. Although she was a year younger, Lily was ten times smarter than me. Lily's mother died when she was a baby, and her father never paid attention to her. So my own mother took her in. My mother made us peanut butter sandwiches and cut off the crust for Lily, just as she liked. She mended the tears in Lily's tights so she wouldn't get in trouble with her father. Instead of playing with the other guests' children, Lily and I scampered all over Estrellada, completing my chores as fast as possible so we could do whatever we pleased. We were inseparable, all summer long.
Lily liked to pretend she was a member of the Dawson family. Like Lily, they came every year. Unlike Lily and her father, the Dawson's were unquestionably perfect. Mr. Dawson was a CEO of some real estate firm, and was always carrying around nameless gadgets that fascinated us to no end. Mrs. Dawson was an ex-model, who had settled down to create a family, and in her spare time, volunteered at local hospitals and shelters. They were clearly in love. Lily and I, we didn't know what love was. My own dad walked out on my mother the second she told him she was pregnant with me, and Lily of course, never met her mother. We wondered what it was like to be in love, and in our childish brains, the Dawson's were love. The apple of their eye was their flawless son Tom. Tom Dawson was the epitome of perfect. All the girls at Estrellada went crazy over him. He surfed, played football, soccer, baseball, and any other athletic activity he decided to play. He went to Stanford. He was the type of guy every boy wished he was; the type of son every mother wished to have. Tom Dawson was six years older than me. The Dawson's has another son, Pete, a year older than me, but not many people knew about him. He didn't match the rest of the family; Pete had mousy brown hair and glasses when the rest had platinum blonde hair and big blue eyes. Pete was forever shadowed by Tom; Tom shined so bright and Pete lurked in the shadow behind. Lily once told me she wanted to marry Tom. I was surprised to feel a pang of jealousy I misdiagnosed as an upset stomach. But still, I idolized Tom. He rarely talked to me, or any of the other boys around, but we still followed him around, watching the life we wished we could live.
I didn't know my boss's real name. People just called him The Captain. I was almost as scared of him as Mr. Crawford. I always wondered why people called him The Captain. I heard rumors about him, that the fifty-something man was a captain in World War I. But no one really knew the truth. The Captain was the groundskeeper for Estrellada. He was one of the oldest employees at the resort. The Captain had worked there since he was a kid, then making money in the Depression. I vaguely feared that someday I would end up like The Captain: never married, never had kids, always working at Estrellada. The only person I knew who wasn't scared of him was Lily. They got along surprisingly well. Once Lily and I went running by, screeching and yelling by the guests at lunch outside by the pool. The second we saw the Captain, we knew we were dead. The Captain approached with a dangerous look in his eye. He yanked my arm and pulled me aside. 'What do you think you're doing with her, boy?' he asked. 'N-n-Nothin' Mr. Captain,' I stammered. 'Don't you know your place-you aren't supposed to be with her. For now you might not see it, but soon it'll be too late,' The Captain growled, 'Don't say I didn't warn you'. He then excused himself to 'Miss Baldwin' and asked about her stay at Estrellada and whether he could do anything for her. Those words haunt me to this day.
Well, that summer ended as soon as it began. We spent the last night of summer at the carnival in town. Lily liked the carousel the best. We rode it so many times that Lily threw up. To make her feel better, I won a pink, plastic, seashell- shaped ring for her. To make her laugh, I got down on my knees and asked her to marry me. She laughed and said, 'I most certainly will. I'll wear this ring forever.' The next morning, I could tell Lily was trying not to cry as we said our goodbyes. Lily's bubblegum-tinted breath tickled my cheek as she whispered, "I promise I'll be back next summer. Wait for me. I'll come back". Her father gave me a suspicious look as he firmly ushered her into the back of the limousine. I can still picture her face in my mind as she drove away. My mother placed her hand on my shoulder, holding me back as the car disappeared around the winding driveway. As though compelled by an unseen force, I wrenched away and raced after their car, and chased it until it turned into town. I collapsed in the dunes on the side of the road in tears. I descended into melancholy for the next few days. I was aware of the worried expressions on my mother's face when she thought I couldn't see her. It was almost as if she knew this would come to no good. I had a couple friends at school that would get me through the next nine months, but I was already counting down the days until Lily's arrival the following summer.
Lily kept her promise. She came back the next summer. And the following summer. And every summer after. Two things happened the summer I was sixteen. The first thing I had been waiting for since the age of six, but now it barely fazed me: Mr. Crawford died. He was playing golf and one minute he had his club raised, about to hit the ball, and the next he was sprawled on the ground, clutching his heart. He died fourteen minutes later, of a heart attack, before an ambulance arrived. Mrs. Crawford covered his lifeless body with great heaving sobs. I was caddying for someone on the next hole, so I saw the whole thing unfold. I saw Mr. Crawford's dying breath. They say you can see the light leave someone's eyes as they die. I'm here to say that's not really true. But maybe that's because Mr. Crawford never had any light in his eyes to begin with. The other guys all asked me for a play-by-play. They wanted to know what a dead body looked like. They wanted to know if the old devil finally looked peaceful or at rest. But he didn't. He just looked dead. You'd think this would've torn up the resort, or ruined the summer season, or something. It didn't, not at all. It just goes to show how self-centered those people are. I guess I'm right in there with them. I didn't particularly care either. The funeral was a quiet, private affair at a local church. Mrs. Crawford disappeared basically without notice. I heard rumors from the gossiping housewives that she was seeing a younger man. Lily teased that the younger man, could have been me, if I would've played my cards right. She hadn't changed much during the last seven summers. And this brings me to the second thing that happened that summer.
It had been there all along, really. I just never quite realized it. I think I knew it from the first conversation about Mrs. Crawford. I don't believe in destiny. I don't believe in fate. But I do believe that from that day, seven years before, I had always been in hopelessly, irrevocably in love with Lily Baldwin. There was no momentous shift over the line separating best-friend-Lily and something-more-Lily. I don't even remember when I first realized it. It could've been any moment: riding the carousel, getting ice cream at the stand by the beach, riding our bikes along the seaside roads. All I know is that Lily was now, and really always has been, more important than anything else. Everyone else knew it was coming: The Captain, my mother, even Lily, I think, knew it before me. That sun-kissed summer was the best of my life.
I never figured out how to whistle before that summer. Tom Dawson has tried to teach us one summer, but I never could get the hang of it. All of a sudden, now I could. When I walked, there was a spring in my step. I hummed along to the radio. But still, my mother's worried glances didn't go away. The Captain became even more suspicious of me. He'd give me more chores to keep me busy, and even more warnings to stay away from Lily. But they went to waste; I wasn't even scared of The Captain anymore. I was invincible. I pitied those who didn't feel the same. One fine day (Well, everyday was a fine day this summer), I was working at a party hosted by the Dawson's. Their many friends and admirers were there, all celebrating Tom's graduation from Stanford, with highest honors. After the toasts had been made, Tom took the stage, blushing, and thanked everyone for their support. He then turned to a beautiful girl standing near Mr. and Mrs. Dawson. Her name was Rosemary. Tom walked over to her, microphone in hand. He got down on one knee and pulled out a ring. Her hand flew over her mouth in disbelief as she nodded, and the crowd applauded. His smile lit up the whole room. He looked so perfectly content that I didn't even resent him for it. 'It's nice, isn't it,' Lily said as she snuck up behind me and rested her head on my shoulder. 'You think that'll ever be us?' she whispered. I laughed with pure happiness and answered with, 'You bet it will'. After the party, I was putting the chairs away when Pete Dawson shuffled into the gazebo area. I had always felt awkward around Pete, lacking the charisma of this older brother, but I tried to make some small talk. 'Nice party tonight, wasn't it?' I asked uncomfortably. When Pete didn't respond, I was silent. A few minutes went by when suddenly Pete muttered, half to himself, 'She's cheating on him.' My eyes widened, but I still didn't turn around. He laughed mirthlessly and continued, 'Yeah, I bet you didn't know that. I saw her, sweet little Rosemary, just before the toasts'. Then he added with a sneer, 'And after the party'. When I didn't respond, he carried on, 'No one knows the truth. You should see what he does. You know he was smoking pot before the party?'. I must have shook my head, because I heard Pete's cruel laugh again as he elaborated. 'And that's not all. There's drugs, there's drinking, there's girls. If only dear Mother and Daddy knew. But they'd never believe it, even though it's right in from of their eyes. I bet you don't even believe me'. I hadn't said a word the entire time. 'The truth will set you free. What a load of rubbish. Well, time will tell'. I heard Pete begin to walk away. He paused then and ended with, 'By the way, nice girl you got there. Better hold on to her while you can'. I mistook his tone as dangerous, and for the first time, I spun around. 'You stay the hell away from her,' I growled. Pete just smirked and said coolly, 'That's not what I meant, not at all. You just don't see it, do you?' as he disappeared onto the darkened path.
The next summer came and went. As did the next. And things didn't change much. I was heading off to college in September. My mother was so proud. I let her parade me in front of her friends and they'd all exclaim at how much I grew, how handsome I was. I heard my mother murmur to herself, 'Not a bit like his father'. All through the fall, Lily and I wrote to each other, as we had every year, waiting for summer. My opinion of myself grew and grew. I made friends that spent their own childhoods in resorts like The Hotel Estrellada. I lied about where I was from. I told them my father died instead of abandoning my mother. I told them I was heir to Estrellada instead of errand boy. I went to swanky parties and flirted with pretty girls. I was still in love with Lily, but I didn't see the harm. I wrote her less and less. She stopped writing as well. But I wasn't upset; I knew I'd see her next summer.
That summer I was nineteen. I had arrived home to Estrellada, and for the first time, felt dissatisfied with everything about it. The house my mother has raised me in seemed shabby instead of comforting. I heard the Baldwin's weren't coming until late July instead of early June. I worried why. I was repairing a fence daydreaming about Lily when I saw The Captain hobbling towards me. He sure had gotten old. I shouted that I was lazy and the fence was all wrong. I quit then and there. I thought I shouldn't have to put up with crotchety old man anymore. After all, I was a university man now.
Tom Dawson died on June 24th. The autopsy proved it was from a drug overdose. Mrs. Dawson still didn't believe it. Rosemary disappeared and rumor has it married one of Tom's business partners. The funeral was held at Estrellada. The black casket was like a stain on the sandy white beach. Mr. and Mrs. Dawson sobbed and neighbors comforted them, although just gossiping about the scandalous death moments before. I saw Pete after the funeral. He had the same sarcastic leer when he approached me and continued the same conversation from three summers before. 'They still don't believe it. He's preserved in martyrdom forever, and I'll always be the sinner,' Pete muttered. 'Where's the Baldwin girl? She ditch you?' he asked. 'Of course not,' I snapped. 'Aren't we defensive,' he mocked, 'I knew she would. Things change'. 'She hasn't changed,' I snarled, although even I could hear the doubt in my voice. 'Who are kidding, you've changed since then. Who's to say she hasn't?' The apprehension I had been feeling all summer for Lily's arrival erupted into full-blown panic. But I kept cool as I walked away. I rushed back to my room and hastily wrote a letter to Lily. I said I was sorry. I said I was wrong. I said I loved her. But no answer came. I checked with the guest log and saw that the Baldwin's were still arriving in late July. So I consoled myself that Lily was simply giving me the cold shoulder to punish me. But still, I worried.
I was terrified the day before Lily's arrival. I was walking back home at dusk when I saw a figure at the calm water's edge. A woman's figure was outlined by the dying sun. She was throwing something into the ocean. I heard muffled sobs. Imagine my surprise when I saw who the figure was: Mrs. Crawford. I hadn't thought about her for ages. At a closer look, I saw she wore no makeup and wore a baggy sweater and long skirt. She looked tired and old. She was tossing rose petals into the sea. She didn't look surprised to see me. 'Oh, hello dear. How are you?' She had never spoken to me that way before. 'What are you doing here?' I asked rudely. I couldn't help myself. Mrs. Crawford looked confused when she answered, 'I always come this time each year. It's the anniversary of my husband's death'. I was shocked. No one had ever recognized her before. I never thought Mrs. Crawford has actually loved him. People said she was a trophy wife. People said he had affairs during their marriage. But I guess you can't really judge by what people say. 'It's silly, I know,' she said sadly, 'but I just miss him so much sometimes'. I didn't know what to say, so I stayed quiet, ashamed at my thoughts about them. 'And what about that lovely sweetheart of yours?' she asked. I amazed myself by telling Mrs. Crawford everything. I told her how much of an idiot I'd become. I told her how I hadn't heard from her for months. And I told her how much I was still in love with Lily Baldwin, and that I would do anything to have her back. Mrs. Crawford listened quietly. After I was done, she pulled off her wedding band. 'I've been living in the past. I need to accept he's gone, and to do that, today, I was planning to drop this ring into the ocean with the roses. But I have a better idea,' she said as she grabbed my hand and placed the delicate, beautiful ring in my palm. 'You know what to do.' Mrs. Crawford said softly. I never saw her again.
I wore my best shirt and tie the next day. The servants were supposed to be setting up for a lavish wedding, but I was pacing outside by the entrance. Then, I saw the Baldwin's car. Two men stepped out and the first I recognized as an aged Jack Baldwin. Then came Lily. She was wearing a long white dress. And carried a bouquet. A group of girls I didn't recognize, all in pink taffeta, surrounded her, making a fuss. My heart stopped when I realized that the wedding was Lily's. She was the bride. Lily looked nervous as she glanced around as though looking for someone. I realized that someone was me. My hand clenched into Mrs. Crawford's ring and the diamond dug into my hand. And then, our eyes met. She didn't look defiant. She didn't look sorry. She didn't look angry. Lily just looked sad. The moment was over as soon as it began. I turned away and walked slowly to the sandy shore. I don't know how long I stared out to sea. The waves crashed. 'I didn't want to have the wedding here,' Lily murmured as she walked up behind me. She had a long dark gray coat on over her dress. Through my shock, all I could muster was a simple, 'Why'. 'You know, people change and-,' Lily broke off, and I could tell she was crying. 'People change and'and situations change. We both did. People choose different paths.'. 'Do you love him,' I asked. 'No,' she began,' but it's for the best. He loves me'. 'I'm sorry I stopped writing,' I began, but she cut me off. 'It doesn't matter. We wouldn't have lasted. We're from different worlds. I figured out a lot over the past year and I learned that love doesn't conquer all, as much as we wish it would'. When I was silent, she started to walk away. I wanted to say so many things at that moment. I wanted to scream at her. I wanted to cry. I don't know what I wanted. But I didn't do any of those things. I thought inexplicably of our first summer. There was a wedding then too. Se had on her highest heels and spun round and round until she fell over from exhaustion. We had laughed and laughed. Ten years had gone so fast. 'Hey Lily,' I said, strangely composed, at her retreating figure. As looked back, I saw tears running down her face. 'You look really pretty'. Lily smiled sadly and turned away.
I stayed at the beach until dark. I left Estrellada the very next day to get a job closer to school. I searched for Mrs. Crawford to return the ring, but could never find her again. I graduated and got a good job. I married a nice girl that my mother got along with. We settled down in the suburbs of San Francisco and lived in a pretty, little house with a picket fence. I had four children. Three boys and a girl. I named my daughter Lily.
My wife died a few years ago. My kids have all gone to college. Relatively speaking, I had a successful life. At seventy-nine, I can be proud of all I've accomplished. I have few regrets, and only one haunts me to this day. Sometimes I think back to the sweet, sandy days of Estrellada. I think of Mrs. Crawford, and of Tom and Pete Dawson, and of The Captain. But most of all, I think of Lily. When I think Estrellada, I think Lily Baldwin because, if you think about it, they were really the same thing. Both were first loves, both I lost. Neither had I truly belonged with. But both were best friends, and both meant home. I decided to visit The Hotel Estrellada one last time. The salty air welcomed me back. I drove past the cottage where my mother and I had lived for twenty years. She had died fifteen years before, but I missed her everyday. I hobbled down the paths I had once scurried along. The fences I had painted so long ago had been replaced with plastic. The beach was littered with umbrellas. As I got to the shore, I noticed an elderly lady sitting alone in a beach chair. She had no rings on her fingers, but one. A pink, seashell shaped ring someone might win at a carnival. I smiled and went over to greet an old friend.