Coming of Age Funny Friendship

There are only so many faces in this world. I see them all, banded together, waiting to devour me. 

The ambiance of the lobby does not suit the guest the size of a dragon, who stands above me with only the counter between us for protection. I smell the caramel candy tucked in her cheek, clicking from tooth to tooth while she spits at me I need to talk to your manager. 

The air outside is dark and frigid. My manager hides in her office with three space heaters tucked under her desk. She is afraid of the guests, who only want to talk to her when they’re unsatisfied with the cabin they rented. Her poncho outfit matches the carpet, and her spiky hair sticks out in pain. She wears handmade ornament earrings with tiny white bows even though it is the middle of January. Her office is next to the laundry room, behind a group of housekeepers drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups. They have nowhere to sit down, so they balance sandwiches and pizza slices on paper plates.  

I need to talk to your manager, now!

I leave the front desk and descend into the bottom floor. I count each creaky step down the stairs, into the dungeon, to tell Poncho she has been summoned again. 

Poncho says, tell them I’m not here. She does not look up from her dusty monitor. 

My heart speeds up a little. I'd like to say: It’s illegal. No break room. We have to stand here in the hallway to eat lunch. It’s required in California to provide a break room with some kind of couch. 

I’d like to shove that on her, the way she shoves me back at The Dragon upstairs. 

Instead, I say: okay, should I give her a refund? 

She hands me a dinner certificate for La Flora’s Mexican food, as if I can pacify this woman with expensive tacos. Sometimes that does work, for the ones who just want some freebies, just want to milk my utters of customer service.

Like the last guest, a man with an angry nose, who returned to the lobby with a bag of live spiders that he captured from the darkest corners and drawers of his cabin. He wailed like a child without a bedtime until we gave him the taco money. Then he all but skipped out of the lobby, locking hands with his wife, reunited over their recent victory. He left the spiders for me, a parting gift. The little bugs crawled up toward the plastic lock as if they understood the exit route. When I took them outside and opened the bag, they stayed right in place, afraid of the snow, of the line of cars waiting to park, of the people from down-the-hill who would stomp them or kidnap them out of their home and call them disgusting, unacceptable service. 

I already know The Dragon won’t accept my taco money. She wants more, she wants to be right, she wants to be in charge. 

The manager is not available at this moment. Is there anything I can assist you with? 

What I meant to say was: get out of here. Enjoy the vacation you paid for. Take pictures of your kids fighting next to the dumpster. Get a burger at Carls Jr. across the street with curly fries. Drink a bottle of red wine and fall off a sled. Tell a funny story about the creepy cabin you stayed in. Live a little. 

I’m not the only one here. There is another front desk clerk, who stands just three away from me. She's my age. I think we went to high school together. Wafts of her vanilla body spray keep me warm during the night shift. 

I imagine the two of us leaving the lobby together. We lock the doors, walk across the street to Sandy’s Joint for a beer, watch a group of boys watch football on the grainy TV above the bartender. I tell her about The Dragon and we make fun of Poncho in a whisper. We still have our jackets on with the hoods up. 

Every shift, I stare at the back of her head. She’s shorter than me and skinnier. She tucks her polo into her jeans. I want to say: That lady can kick rocks. Let’s get drunk. 

I am afraid of her, I am afraid she will say no thanks.

And I am afraid of The Dragon. 

The Dragon always has the spotlight. They raise their voice just above the murmur of the happier guests who eagerly await their magical mountain destination, the ones who dispense hot cocoa into I'm on Weekend Time mugs, pick sugar cookies out of the basket in front of my computer, wipe up the crumbs after they sign their paperwork. 

The Dragon wants to make sure they know the trouble they're checking into. She will look around to make sure someones listening, then she will ask me, do you people even have remote controls in this town? The TV in my house is bigger than your movie theater. 

She won't win against them and their high spirits. These people are not like her. They take selfies next to the welcome sign. They read info magazines and stop at the visitors center. They buy teeshirts and blankets and keychains from the gift shop. They scatter across the property, thrilled to be anywhere but home. A doll-faced girl taps on the outside of the public bathroom door, crouches in position to scare her Papa, roars like the mountain lions he warned her about. She drops her mittens in the snow, and her sister heats them in the hand drier in the lady's room. She gets her very own queen bed tonight, but she doesn’t sleep in it because coyotes howl outside her window. There is a second young girl, a friend from her class, who brought an extra Unicorn stick for her to play with. These two screech as they jump off the spotted sofa, still wrapped in hot pink jackets and rainbow leggings. They run circles around each other as if there will always be a center.

I peek over at Vanilla. She pretends not to feel the tension.

I have no choice. I say: My manager is currently unavailable. I can offer you a dinner certificate at a wonderful Mexican restaurant just a few blocks away. 

She knows that I know that she will not go down so easily. She trembles. She almost smiles. She knows she has won. She gets ready to breathe her fire on me. 

Someone…..stole….my….CREDIT CARD. 

The ultimate offense. My hands freeze like little snowballs. 

I close my eyes and imagine us at the bar. Sipping flat beer. One of the boys walks over now. He wants to know if Vanilla has a boyfriend. He wears a deep red flannel buttoned all the way up to his neck. His sneakers are wet on the toes. He knocks over a water cup when he extends a hand to shake. She laughs and apologizes for him, wipes up the ice cubes with her sleeve. 

Get me out of here. The Dragon has the attention of the other guests, the happy ones, the unicorn girl, and her Papa. They just want the keys to their cabin, now they have to face the well-oiled thief machine of the front desk. 

The Dragon is not the first person to declare this kind of war on us. Housekeeping stole my necklace, my kid lost her iPod, I think the front desk has it, what do you mean you don't have it, let me talk to the manager, you criminal.

Those were all over the phone. I can simply hang up in safety. I am protected by the cold and the laziness of the guest who won't drive here, who secretly knows they lost the necklace, the iPod, the cash. They lost the fun they meant to have. 

The Dragon is not on the phone, she is in the flesh. Vanilla is just three feet from me, quiet, looking past it all. 

I stutter. I.. I.. I’m very sorry for your loss. I mean, I’m sorry about your card. We will look for it and call you if we find anything. 

She laughs the kind of laugh that a woman does when she argues with her distant man.

 I want to say: I'm sorry you are the way you are. I'm sorry that you feel like the world is against you. I don’t know who made you this way, or how many years it took to get you here. You have money, you have children, you have time to spend on vacation. Admire the wonderful gifts you’ve been given, get in your car, and count them out loud, tell each of them you hope they never leave you. 

I also want to say: screw you, lady. How dare you point your finger. You probably didn't even check between your seats. You don't kneel for anything. 

But I don't say that. I don't say anything else.

I don't speak because I am interrupted by the daintiest voice of a lion. I hear the words building into a perfect orchestra, a violin that's been buried inside me for years, waiting to echo at the perfect moment. 

Vanilla turns toward The Dragon. 

I hear Vanilla:

Hey, Lady! You better hope she didn’t steal from you. You pray she never tries to take your things. Because if she does, she’s taking your card, your keys, your purse, your job, your husband, and your boyfriend. There are people in line behind you, and they don’t wanna listen to your drama, honey. Get out of here. Enjoy your stay!

The Dragon looks at Vanilla, then she looks at me. I feel her shrink, collapse inward like a dying star. She looks nauseous and out of breath.

She pinches her mouth closed, tosses her keys into her bag, tucks it deep under her arm, and marches at the door. The man she’s with follows like a dog who just destroyed a pillow, his tail tucked and singed from the years of flame licks. 

The other guests in the lobby, the witnesses, are silent for just a moment. Then the girl hops back on her Unicorn, continues to ride in circles around her friend. Her Papa claps. The other family claps. An old man points to me, winks, and whistles into his fingers.

I laugh and she laughs. The office is empty now, except for us. She waits for me to lock the door. I follow her into the parking lot. She whips around, her ponytail hits me in the face. 

She asks, Hey, wanna get drunk? She flashes a shiny platinum Visa under her jacket, tosses it into the air. I watch it flutter like a snowflake into the sewer.

January 15, 2021 03:40

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