“Hotel Lobbies,” a short story by Samantha Parelli ’21 earned a 2018 Governor’s Award in Arts Education to be presented at an award ceremony and performance at the Patriots Theatre at the War Memorial in Trenton on May 22, 2018. Samantha is being recognized for winning the Jersey Shorts Flash Fiction Contest sponsored by the Writer’s Theatre of New Jersey, a statewide prose-writing contest for students in grades 9-12. This year’s prompt was to write a flash fiction piece in 1,500 words or less. Samantha’s piece was selected by professional writers based on the following criteria: voice, originality, authenticity, sophistication, craft, intention and successful execution. Enjoy this wonderful story.
I’ve become quite acquainted with hotel lobbies. For the droves of travelers, bearing department store suitcases of plastic veneer, this would have been a self-satiating realization. The possession of a suitcase was what I initially believed to be the cause of my animosity toward such lobbies, but I now understand that this theory was fundamentally incorrect. A suitcase, even the turquoise one that was the object of my childhood infatuation, would have only sat as a dead weight at my feet. My mother would have dragged me across one floor or the other, and invisible claws would have left prominent scratches along its gleaming sides. And I would have cried. Just like everything I had every wanted, tangible achievement was bound to ruin it. In hindsight, the suitcase was one of many things that did not matter, yet it is inevitably featured in the dimly-lit tape of hotel lobbies that seems to always be on repeat. I see this sequence of events over and over again, and trademark decorations of the 70s flash behind my eyelids in a display of wasted extravagance. I search for it, search for the “why,” the “how,” and ultimately the “why” once more. I search for a meaning that constantly eludes me, but there are so many hotel lobbies that they all feel like surreal extensions of my imagination.
I can, however, remember the start of that day quite distinctly, as if it has been removed from contamination by time’s influence. In lucid detail, I see a ceramic bowl of caramels on the front desk, each candy wrapped in a shell of liquid gold. My mother, thinking that I am nine rather than almost thirteen, hands me one as she negotiates with an agitated receptionist. The check-in desk is made of black marble, flecked with dots of green, and I know my mother will dismiss me when her dialogue begins to dissolve into slurs. I look across the room. My mother’s ponytail, a futile attempt to contain a wild mane of auburn curls, is silhouetted against light emanating from a dusty chandelier. Beyond that, a staircase is visible. The carpeted steps build upwards, the redwood banister coasts forward, and other hotel patrons ascend gracefully. My mother’s voice rises, contrasting the soft laughter that diffuses throughout the room from an unknown source. She carries nothing but a canvas bag, and clothing spills out like the innards of a makeshift doll. The laughter stops. My mother is unrivaled in her tone. The room shrinks away, distorting itself until all energy is traceable to a singular woman. Canvas bag, hair in a state of disarray, right ear riddled with holes only half occupied with jewelry.
I walk off, as I always do. Before I turn, the receptionist casts me a pitiful gaze, which she believes is the only thing I am worthy of receiving from her. My blood rushes to paint my cheeks red and the laughter, likely resumed by coincidence, causes me to bow my head in shame. At this point, my memory gives in, and the room is suddenly overwhelmingly bright. Faces, made grotesque by the synthetic illumination of the chandelier, can only be recollected in a way that makes them seem submerged underwater. The stairs backbone my delusional interpretation of the room, and they are the only object that does not vibrate wildly. My peripheral vision senses alarm, but I ignore whatever disturbance my instinct leads me to detect. My mother is fiercely into her negotiations, and I sit with my back to her.
Suddenly, the lobby is almost unoccupied. The dark patch at the top of the stairs, marking the celestial barrier to the expanse of luxurious suites, has engulfed the last legitimate guests. I close my eyes, I block it out. I pretend that the lobby is completely empty, that my mother is not my mother, and that the cold feeling against my upper thigh is nothing but an odd suffusion of the room’s stifling air, nothing but a trick of my removed mind. I am gone, the memory is terminated. I remember after and before, but never during. It has been consumed by the darkness that resides between the elegant staircases and the first row of hotel rooms. I run to my mother, but she is too angry to mind me. She unfolds her clenched fist, as if to take my hand, but unfurling her fingers reveals nothing but a glistening candy wrapper.
“Will you throw this out for me?” she requests.
I take the golden carcass, and I lifelessly drop it into a wastebasket composed of peculiar green straw. My mother offers me a verbal placebo, postulating that I’m glum about not taking another caramel. I ignore her, and she repeats platitudes about life’s disappointments. A tear, breaking my facade of emotionlessness, burns a liquid trail on my cheek.
“Aw. Don’t worry. We’ll find somewhere else to stay. There’s plenty of hotels around here,” my mother states, determining that I am crying over things that are resolvable.
I force a smile to overtake my cracked lips. Her job effectively completed, my mother steps in front of me as she pushes open one of the glass doors. She does not understand why I am crying. For a moment, I rotate my head to view the stairs once more. Perhaps, all that I ever want is to hear my own footfalls echo in their hollow expanse, to ascend to the a door bearing a golden number, and to finally fathom what is beyond that patch of inevitable darkness. For now, I can only view that spot of obscurity visible from artificially lighted hotel lobbies. I conclude that one day, on my own, I will finally climb one of the impossible staircases, and I will finally unlock a temporary room with a metallic key. When we reach the street, I am sobbing. My mother does not even offer up her most platitudinous sentiment because she still believes that I am young, innocent, and prone to outbreaks of emotion at arbitrary times. I am none of those things any longer, but hotel lobbies have made me resilient. Now, in an environment dissimilar to that experienced many years ago, I am shaking uncontrollably. The darkness has dissipated. I climbed the stairs, and there is nothing left to say.