by Lisa Lebduska
On a blistering July morning in 1979, Connie and Maria entered the smooth, moneyed chill of The Plaza Hotel, trailing after Connie’s father Tom, who crossed its gleaming marble with the long, confident strides of a Marine. “You’re only an imposter if you act like one,” he had told Connie, and she tried to practice what he preached. But once they arrived, his advice vanished like cigarette ash wiped away by the maids. Though Connie had visited The Plaza with him before, she still faltered under the crystal scrutiny of the chandeliers. While Maria winked at the crewcut bellboys pushing golden carts loaded with paisley luggage, Connie fought to ignore the loose buckles on her gum-soled sandals, chirping like crickets with every sticky step she took. Against the noise, she could hear her mother’s dark fable.
When I was sixteen, a man groped me on the subway. And that was when the trains had wicker seats and it didn’t stink of pee.
What did you do?
I drove my pearl hatpin into his leg as far as it would go.
What did he do?
Didn’t make a peep. I wiped the blood on his trousers.
Each time her mother had told the story, Connie knew which questions were safe to ask and which were not. What she wanted to ask but could not, was why, out of all the women riding the subway, had the man picked on her? Was it because she was so petite and delicate looking, he thought she would never fight back? Or was it because she was so pretty, he could not resist the temptation to possess her? If her face had been a plain oval and not a petulant heart; if her nose had had a bump instead of a slope, if her smile had not been so white and even, would the man have approached her? Connie could not ask; she understood that she had to take a single message from the story, as if it had been a bullet: men are dangerous. But she also knew that her mother’s dark beauty gave her the courage to demand that the world treat her as she wished. Connie had watched her getting ready for work, stretching her lashes long with coal mascara, pressing a deep ruby onto her full lips that matched a perfect manicure and looking back at herself with quiet satisfaction. “You take after your father’s side of the family,” she told Connie, who, ever aware of her farmer features–a squarish face and wide nose–had no reason to doubt her. And so at fourteen, she had buttoned herself into her plainness, a protective cardigan she wore year-round, punctuated only by the moments with Maria when she was persuaded to unravel it into an unruly heap and set it alight.
A trip to The Plaza with her best friend promised an entire box of matches and a flask of kerosene.
Unlike Connie, Maria wore her looks as a striped blue bolero. Connie had discovered Maria in Accelerated Geometry, a class filled with pale doughy boys who giggled every time Mr. Kagan said “intersection of sets.” They bonded solving proofs and blowing light pink bubbles that they popped with muffling, sticky fingers, under their desks, as Mr. Kagan covered the board in chalky glyphs. Maria cracked wise against a world of lust that both terrified and beckoned Connie, and Connie laughed when no one else dared. The sister of four brothers, Maria served as self-appointed Sex Expert, answering Connie’s questions about penises, because Connie had never seen one in person. Maria knew things but as important she also knew how to say “please” and “thank you” and look adults straight in the eye, and so Connie’s mother never objected to their spending time together.
By tacit agreement the girls rejected the chronic competition of appraisal that hobbled the friendships of other girls, and they guarded each other’s secrets, including the panty girdle that Connie’s mother insisted she wear, the closest she came to talking with her big-busted, blonde daughter about dating: Jiggling gives boys the wrong idea. Besides, it’s not a corset; you get used to it, in time. Connie had not protested.
“Take them off,” Maria said. “Unless you’re getting ready for a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. Bare feet are sexy.”
“Not in the lobby of the most famous hotel in the world,” Connie said, in between sandal jangles.
Tom led the girls towards the elevators, past the shop that sold the Cointreau-filled chocolates that he brought home every Friday along with morsels about the hotel’s jeweled clientele. He told his family he’d hit the jackpot when the Plaza agreed to rent him office space on its deteriorating fourteenth floor: “Too dilapidated for movie stars, but perfect for me.” His wife bought him expensive jackets on markdown at Lohman’s and kept his hair trimmed close, taking care to cover the bald patch that had emerged on the back of his head like a pink baby.
Since coming to The Plaza, Tom had transformed from an engineer who worried about the stability of concrete into a celebrity authority who knew who wore wigs and who cheated on their spouses. He talked about movie stars as if they all rode the bus together. Connie could feel the fame rubbing off on her, a small, glittering gem she hoped would someday captivate the man who looked at her the right way. She wanted Maria to catch some of it, too.
“Mr. Basso, who’s the best person you’ve ever seen?” Maria asked.
“You tell me.” Tom hummed a few bars of “I Think I Love You.”
“You saw David Cassidy. What was he like?”
“Skinny. He’s no Gregory Peck.” Tom winked at Connie.
“We’re going to hang around here before we come up to the office, O.K?” Connie asked.
Tom ran his fingers through distinguished greying temples but sounded like an East Side kid as he said, “Buy yourselves some treats and don’t get me kicked out,” and pressed ten dollars into Connie’s hand before he stepped on to the elevator. He had given them half of his weekly allowance, doled out by her mother. Your father spends two dollars for every one he earns. If I didn’t watch every penny we’d be bankrupt.
Connie and Maria headed back to the lobby. Maria asked, “Was your Dad serious about getting kicked out?”
“The Plaza rented him office space when they were running out of money. Then rich owners bought it. Now they want to terminate commercial leases and renovate.”
“They can’t throw him out,” Maria said.
“No, but management can get really picky about whether they’re abiding by their lease.”
“It would kill him. Nothing’s like The Plaza. The Beatles and Elizabeth Taylor stayed here. My dad’s part of it, just by going to work. It’s fairy dust.”
The girls strolled to two brocade lounge chairs and plopped down, watching guests.
A gray-haired woman wearing a stiff persimmon mini-dress and white pantyhose approached the marbled registration counter. She looked like a lollipop.
Maria pointed at the woman. “Don’t see any fairy dust there. Bet her chauffeur hates her.”
“The rich don’t care. They don’t have to care.”
“Sounds dull as dirt. Who’d want to join that club?”
“My father. Dad grew up in a boys’ home—his mother ran away to be the next Lana Turner; his father was a drunk.”
“I didn’t know. Geez.” Maria bit her lip.
“Maybe I want to join that club, too,” Connie confessed.
“Why don’t we ride the elevator until a famous person comes on? You can snap my picture with them, quick, before their bodyguard kills you.”
Connie smiled. Maria always knew when to help her run away. Still she had to say, “It might be against the rules.”
“What rules? This isn’t school.” Maria headed for the elevator, and Connie followed, despite the dread that prompted her to blurt out, “If they catch us, they’ll evict my dad.”
“No one’s going to catch us doing anything.” As soon as they entered, Maria pressed random floor buttons.
“We could get into trouble.”
“We’re just taking a ride. What would Dylan Thomas say?”
“He didn’t know about elevators.”
“Do not go gently, Connie!” Maria wagged her finger. “And don’t act like you’re forty!”
“I don’t remember that last part,” Connie teased back.
“Potential trick SAT question.”
Fur Elise drifted through the speakers as Maria pinched her nose and danced the Swim, wriggling down into a crouch. “Mystery Date. Who will you meet when the doors open?” she asked nasally.
“A Kennedy, maybe. A big tipper. Someone with a helicopter.”
“Smart, so I’m not lonely.”
“You can’t kiss a brain, Connie.” Maria studied her cleavage in the mirror, pushing her breasts together.
Connie’s panic returned. “What if there’s a security camera?”
“Gives the cops something to watch.”
“If my father loses his lease because of us, they’ll ground me until I’m old enough to wear dentures.”
“They’ll still let you go to college.”
“It’s Good-bye, David Cassidy! No more Palm Court. No more waiters unfolding my napkin.” Harder to explain, even to Maria, was that she wanted to keep seeing the triumphant look on her father’s face when he told people where he worked.
“What are you–a poodle?”
Chastened, Connie admitted, “I’m the upside-down kettle sitting on a branch in a Highlights picture: find the thing that doesn’t belong.”
Maria declared, “O.K., Teapot. Take my picture!” She tossed her long, dark curls and pouted. Connie pulled out her Instamatic and snapped pictures, saying in a deep voice, “Work with me! Work with me!” until they were both laughing and out of breath.
Maria grew restless. “Let’s go to the gift shop. This elevator’s going to make too many stops.” As soon as they stepped off, a tall man with a blonde crewcut intercepted them. He looked about twenty-five. Sharp pleats divided each long leg of his navy trousers. He had lapis eyes and a faint trace of Midwest drawing out his words.
“Hotel Security,” he said, flashing an ID. All Connie could read was the name “Arnold.” He closed the wallet.
Maria muttered, “Marshall Dillon, at your service, Ma’am,” but Connie did not laugh.
“Where are you girls going?”
“The buttons were already pushed,” Connie stammered. Maria rolled her eyes and asked if he knew Peggy Lipton.
“Come with me, girls.” Arnold towered over them, putting one hand on Maria’s shoulder and the other on Connie’s as he ushered them to the elevator. Maria quietly mouthed to her, He’s a hunk. Connie tried not to cry. How could she have been so reckless?
They descended to the basement, a dingy warren of rooms stacked with claw-footed dressers and worn velvet chairs, a garage sale for the rich. Arnold led them into an office drenched in fluorescence. Cigarette-filled Styrofoam cups littered the linoleum and a few brown metal folding chairs, which were scattered as if their occupants had jumped up and run away.
“Animals,” Arnold muttered. He closed the door, which had a yellowed poster of Connie Francis that Connie recognized. She had been named after the singer, whose story was used by her mother as another cautionary tale: A woman earning a living on her own, singing in revealing dresses was easy prey for the lunatics who roamed the world. It was a miracle she hadn’t been murdered.
Arnold grabbed a chair, spun it around and sat on it backward, leaning over the top, stretching his legs out in front of him. He looked at Connie with a sleepy half-smile, but she did not forget that he was her judge and jury. She wondered if he smiled because he was thinking that the two of them were idiots. This trouble that had landed on her felt so different from the one time she came home fifteen minutes late, which got her grounded for a weekend and disappeared over pancakes and the Sunday paper. For this trouble, her father could not plead her case between requests for the more maple syrup and quips about Charlie Brown’s latest heartache. This trouble would reach beyond her to slap her father. Its sting would never fade.
“Please have a seat.” Arnold gestured to the chairs in a courtly manner. He reminded Connie of the maître-de in the Oak Room who had ushered her and her father to a lunch of grilled salmon and asparagus.
The girls obeyed.
Arnold turned toward Connie and surprised her with the gentleness of his appraisal. “I think I’ve seen you here before.”
She shifted against the clammy metal. “I come to work with my Dad sometimes.”
“Well that explains it,” he said, widening his smile to reveal a small dimple on the left side of his face. “I always remember the pretty ones.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Connie saw Maria smirk, but she didn’t care. She returned the smile and studied his face. His bright eyes suggested playfulness, that he wasn’t half as serious as his job made him be. He was not as old or as serious as he was pretending to be, and as he continued talking, she convinced herself that someone else must have written it, maybe even forced him to memorize it.
“Our guests expect a certain level of decorum here, as you might imagine. It is my job to give them what they want, which includes ensuring that The Plaza maintains its ambience,” he explained. It was a script spoken by an actor, just like the people who called on the phone insisting that a subscription to Redbook magazine would change their lives.
Maria nodded. “Yes, Sir. We understand. We’re very sorry.” She crossed her long legs, pointing her painted toes in his direction, but Arnold didn’t seem to pay attention.
“I appreciate your apology,” he said politely, then turned back to Connie, who noticed, for the first time, that his pinky finger bore a class ring with a yellow stone. His fingers looked strong and neat, with white rounded nails and smooth skin.
“You look like an actress. Has anyone ever told you that?”
Connie brushed a lock of hair from her eyes. “No Sir,” she said, feeling that she had been pulled into the middle of a board game that someone else had made up. No boy had ever complimented Connie like that. He was looking at her in a way that made her feel pretty, made her feel seen, even in the middle of all the trouble they were in. She had to stay focused. Arnold was still in charge, and he had the power to get her father thrown out of The Plaza.
Maria broke the spell. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-four. Got this job right out of the army. How old are you?”
“Eighteen.” Only Maria could lie so quickly.
Connie’s heart sped up. Aronold was not that much older than they were; her Aunt Trudy and Uncle Rob were ten years apart, and they had four kids.
“Wow,” Maria said. “This is a very prestigious position, watching out for all of these important guests. Will you let us go so you can get back to work?”
“Not so fast, Miss. Some of the most famous people in the world stay here. They don’t want to wait for their elevators. Even when they’re being ridden by a blonde cutie.” He looked at Connie as if she had enchanted him.
Connie felt a flash of power as she gazed at Arnold. This must have been what Maria and her mother knew. She wanted to wield it, the way they did, to see if, when she needed it the most, she could get what she wanted. She tilted her head and looked deep into his eyes. “We really are so very sorry. We never meant to cause trouble for you or the hotel.”
“I’ll bet. But I’m in a difficult position.” He offered a sad half smile as he held her gaze.
Connie leaned toward him, and touched his hand lightly. “Can’t you forget it?”
Arnold sat up, expanding his chest as if to reveal something written on it. “I get paid to remember. I’m the one who sees what others can’t. Or won’t. I keep folks safe so they can relax, so they don’t have to worry about the underground.”
“What?” Maria demanded.
“The Plaza is just like Disney World. You ride Space Mountain, eat candied apples and walk around thinking it’s the friendliest, cleanest place in the world. Then you take their underground tour and find out that there’s all this garbage getting whisked away, below, so the tourists never have to think about stinking diapers and crushed ice cream cones. The Plaza is like that. I manage their underground.” Arnold doffed an invisible hat. “Welcome, Princess.”
Connie laughed. “Please let us go. We won’t do this again. It was just a crazy idea.”
“Don’t you like your magic kingdom?”
“I love The Plaza. It has so much excitement, so much fame and elegance.” She wondered if he lived at the hotel somewhere, in payment for his work. He probably dined at the Oak Room every day.
“Oh brother,” Maria groaned.
“We need to get back to my father,” Connie added. “He’s going to worry.” She rose, as elegantly as she could, smoothing out the wrinkles in her linen shorts.
Arnold stood up with her. “Oh, Princess, not yet.” He grabbed her wrist.
Shocked, Connie twisted in his grasp. Arnold clenched his jaw. His eyes narrowed, his face hardened. Whatever power she thought she had had melted like a tear.
“Please,” she said.
“Come on, Princess. If I just let you go, I could get fired. That’s a lot to ask of me, isn’t it?”
Connie felt herself detaching as she fought against the chaos of her thoughts. She wondered, for a moment, what it would feel like to be him. She wondered if he could see terror in her eyes, could feel the frantic pulse racing under his fingertips. Only the words of regret, of apology and contrition had power enough to form and she hated herself for that. “I’m sorry. We need to go. My dad is waiting.”
He released her wrist. “You are so sweet. Those eyes of yours–intense! Maybe we could let your girlfriend go back upstairs and we could talk? Go upstairs to Palm Court later for some ice cream?”
Maria erupted. “What’s the matter? Can’t get a date?” Connie felt like a tiger cub being defended by its mother.
Arnold gripped the back of his chair, so that his ring rattled against the metal. “Mind your own business, or you’ll be in more trouble than you’ve bargained for.”
“We’ll tell her father,” Maria threatened.
“You’ll get him evicted. He’s not a real tenant.” Arnold raised his eyebrows in victory. He had said what Connie had always suspected her father felt. Arnold had unearthed it and pressed it against her face.
Connie stammered, “He pays rent like everybody else.”
Arnold stated flatly, “He’s not the same and Management knows it. He’s not ordering room service and spa treatments. He’s not giving the doorman twenty-dollar tips or sending bouquets of gardenias to Jackson Hole. He’s a working stiff, like the rest of us.”
Maria stood up. “We’ll tell everyone.”
Arnold’s face reddened, but his voice remained calm and even. “Go ahead. Your word against mine. Who’s more believable? A security officer who served his country or a couple of giggling girls?”
“You can’t do this,” Maria said.
“I can do what I please. Today, for example, I feel like telling Management that her father,” he said, pointing at Connie, “lets his daughter run wild, that she’s disturbing the other guests, vandalizing hotel property, and putting them at risk.”
“Please. It was such a tiny mistake.” Connie choked against the whine escaping from her throat.
“You sound like the politicians that parade through here every October.” His face had reddened; his lips had thinned in anger.
Maria took a deep breath and exhaled, never taking her gaze away Arnold. “Look you don’t need to get angry. Let’s think about this,” she said, carefully. “I could use some spending money. I waitress and sometimes customers are looking for a little extra. I know way more than Connie does.”
Arnold tipped his head back, narrowed his eyes and inhaled as if to catch Maria’s exhalations. He appraised the two girls. “Connie. Constance. Beautiful name.” He looked back at the poster on the door, then to Maria he said, “Maybe we can work something out. I like your hair.” He reached up, and Maria bent down, her brown curls falling into his hands as he wound the ringlets around his fingers.
Connie’s stomach heaved.
“Twenty dollars and no report to management, right?” Maria said, straightening. She beamed at Arnold, then caught Connie’s gaze and glanced at her macramé bag.
“Agreed. A fair exchange of services between two consenting adults.”
Connie’s head pounded so hard that the room began to hum. The tiny freckles on Maria’s nose–pale pinpoints that Maria hated because she said they made her look like a kid– stood out in the harsh light. They reminded Connie of a trip they took to Point Pleasant, where Maria had taught her how to body surf against the cold, churning ocean: “Don’t be afraid. Plunge in and ride!” Connie had winced and shivered at the salty chill and then, with her friend, stood in the sun against the gritty waves and laughed.
Maria sat down again next to Arnold and began murmuring in a low voice. He closed his eyes and laced his hands behind his head in a relaxed cradle. “You can watch if you’d like, Princess,” Arnold said languidly.
Connie’s mind wandered to the proud look on her father’s face whenever he told someone he had an office in the Plaza, and the Munch painting that he pointed out to visitors, and the silent maids in their dark uniforms and flat rubber shoes who were forever wiping ash from burnished metal cigarette trays with their rags. She recalled the flowered Palm Court teacups, with eggshell porcelain so delicate she barely touched her lips to them. She wondered what would happen if she went there one day and, instead of sipping her chamomile tea, bit down on the edge until it shattered.
Reaching into her bag, Connie withdrew the camera, and aimed it at Arnold’s square jaw.
She pressed the shutter release. Each click fell clear as a shot.
As she ran with Maria, she thought her sandals sounded like spurs.
About the Author:
Lisa Lebduska directs the College Writing program at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in such journals as Writing on the Edge, The Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket and Narrative, among others. She lives in Salem, Connecticut, just off Witch Meadow Road.