There is a lady who lives at the hotel. Everyday for the past ninety plus days, I see her pass through the front doors without fanfare, walk up to the bar, sit in the exact same place and order her dinner. Her routine, like all of our routines, seems very set; she just happens to live in a four star hotel. She eats her dinner and exchanges stories with the bar staff. The restaurant GM would approach her and they would chat for several minutes. Finished, she charged the meal to her room, tip well and walk past the front desk to the elevators. She knew everyone’s name and everyone knew hers. All were on a first name basis. All, that is, except me.
Not that I dislike the woman or avoid her like I avoid low hanging trees, but we simply never talked. Others helped her with her minuet reservation details. Managers flocked to her assistance to appease her whims, all of whom knew her by name of course. The reason for us to speak simply never arose. And now, three months later, we feel awkward in each other’s presence as if we were riding long elevators and couldn’t find a place for our eyes to rest. She would smile when we made eye contact, but nothing more. And I expected no more.
Not that I minded this. In fact, I had grown accustom to it. Too much time had passed to change our relationship for the better. Barring some disaster like a fire or a sudden outbreak of plague, our interactions would be as mundane as faces passing in a library. I became complacent, almost comfortable with our relationship, which is why tonight was so weird.
It was her birthday and, for the fifth consecutive year, she was spending it alone and in a hotel. The management team got her a card, bottle of wine, branded slippers and a compact as a b-day gift. I was asked to sign the card. It was packed with short essays expounding on the good wishes for her and the love the hotel team held for her in their hearts. These entries were so long and dense, I could not find the room to write anything longer than “Happy Birthday”. It was unsigned and did not even include the emotional stamp of an exclamation point.
The gift was sent to the room. Six hours later, she came to the lobby, card in hand and on the verge of tears.
“Thank you SO much,” she said to my female coworker. “I have to hug you all!”
All? I thought. I watched with impending dread, like the doomed man watches the gallows being prepped, as the permanent resident reached out and embraced the front desk agent with genuine warmth. I was on deck. She released the desk agent from her death grip and sized me up, weighing me with her eyes like a lioness wondering if the kill was worth the energy. Having painted herself into this awkward corner, she opened her arms for the embrace. I lifted my left arm and exposed my flank to her onslaught. A moment passed. A long, strange moment that can only be shared by two complete strangers embracing each other while they tell the world they are good friends.
She let me go. I hissed out a feeble, “Happy birthday”, wondering if she could guess which message on the card was mine.
She left the desk and fresh air returned to my lungs. I watched as she made her rounds to the bar. All hugged her with genuine pleasure. I retreated from the desk and hid in the back office until I judged it safe to reemerge from my hiding place.
Despite our embrace, nothing had changed. She does not greet me nor do I address her by name. We do not talk but merely acknowledge each other’s existence. She would see me walk past her while she ate her meal and would pay me no more attention than she would to a squirrel passing through her backyard, if she had one. We moved about our business like floating shadows, neither interrupting the business of the other.
She sat at the bar and sipped at a cocktail. She looked over the rim at me as I entered the lobby from the kitchen. The ice clinked together in the glass, cold and hollow. Her eyes pierced through me and I saw that she no longer saw me.
I should have squeezed in that damned exclamation point.