I step into the entrance of the Waldorf Astoria and my lower lip jots out as I nod with approval at the swanky decorations. My eyes do a quick sweep of the place. The sunlight comes in through the opened curtains of red velvet that drop from the ceiling and bounces off of the chandelier dripping with gold to illuminate the intricate art deco mosaic on the polished floor. I am enchanted by the luxurious light and wonder in awe at how well my friend is doing for a twenty something businesswoman.
I follow people through a hall with glass showcases displaying white wedding cakes and pearls and enter what appears to be the real lobby. The golden ceiling reflects light like a big moon in the dark room. At the center a small replica of Lady Liberty stands proudly on top of an elegant clock. Small figures of bald eagles crouch at her feet with open wings. I walk towards the clock past a pudgy concierge that is standing by, raising his eyebrows at my vagrant getup.
As I go around the clock I count eight faces staring out from beneath four lion heads, seven of men and one of a woman. I recognize Lincoln, Washington, Jackson, and Grant and assume the rest are other presidents, but I can't make out who the woman is. I ask the concierge and he tells me that the woman is queen Victoria, who gave the clock as a gift to the United States. Apparently she wasn't too happy that we decided to crown her beautiful English clock with a French statue. I chuckle to myself, wondering if Snow White was a thing back then. I think she got the last laugh.
Suddenly, I am blinded by two small, feminine hands.
"Long time no see, crazy one," a familiar voice whispers in my left ear.
"Jiayi!" I squeal as I turn around with a big smile to face her. We make that annoying high-pitched girlfriend yell that girls make when they haven't seen each other in a long time and then we hug. The concierge is now glaring. I would probably glare with him if I wasn't part of the ruckus, but at the moment I'm too caught up in behaving like a stereotypical girl to care what my depressed alter-ego would think.
"I missed you," she says with a pout, breaking from the hug.
"Me too! It's been a year since we were together in Shanghai." We extend the random vocal just to show how much we mean it. We continue our high-frequency exchange, throwing all sorts of questions at each other, until we reach the elevator. I don't know what it is about elevators, maybe the enclosed space, but they automatically switch people into serious-mode.
I ask her about her job, and she tells me solemnly, as if she's talking about someone dying, "My boss is an angel." Now that we're talking about professional subjects our voices become deep. Jiayi tells me a couple of stories just to prove how amazing he is. She talks about fancy dinners, business connections, and great life advice she receives on a daily basis.
As more people enter the elevator we start talking in loud whispers, pretending we're being polite- but not really caring. I interject her stories with variations of "What?" and "No way!" as she tells me about her amazing life in New York.
We finally reach her floor and I can almost feel the remaining people at the elevator sigh with relief as we exit. We walk down the hall and she unlocks the door to her room and I "Oohh" and "Ahhh" as I enter the fancy suite. She makes faces and pretends to be modest, but she's really proud of herself. She takes out some whiskey from the mini-bar and grabs a couple of glasses.
"So I see other things have changed too, huh? Now you're drinking like a grown-up." I say distractedly as I check out the room.
I hear the unmistakable sound of ice being dropped into a glass as she says, "Well, after I started hanging out with a crazy Latina in Shanghai things changed. It's probably after 6 o'clock back there anyway." We share a devilish smile as she hands me the drink. "Also, I found it is an excellent way to impress my boss and his business partners. It feels awkward to order a sugary drink when everyone else is ordering something manly."
"Cheers," we chime in unison and then take a sip.
We hold our drinks as we stand by the huge window and stare out at the beautiful view of Manhattan.
"How in the world did you manage to get all this with an entry-level job in your first month in New York?"
"Connections, Alice. The city is heaven if you have them, hell if you don't."
"I heard even Marilyn Monroe had to move out because she couldn't afford this place."
"When was she born, like, the nineteenth century? No, girl, looks are not enough these days. Where did you get that from anyway?"
"Wikipedia of course, the only source of interesting conversations. I had an entertaining ride on the internet while I was on the way here. My smartphone somehow got a good signal while I was underground. There's many songs about this place. Apparently it was a big thing back in it's prime. With presidents and stars and whatnot walking around being fabulous. Oh and it was the first hotel to allow women in without an escort."
"Hey, it would have been nicer if they started giving them away for free to ladies in need."
"Ladies indeed," I say with a sneer, and we both giggle. "Oh man, you're too much fun. I feel like I'm back in Shanghai. It seems so far away and so much has happened. I'm a different person."
"Tell me about it. Graduating college is the best thing that happened to me since I broke up with my first boyfriend."
"Langston Hughes wrote a very pretty poem praising the hotel too. He was telling the poor people starving to death outside how nice it would be if they staid here." Jiayi rolled her eyes at me, probably crediting my comment to what she called Alice-behavior. She says that one of the weirdest things about me is my ability to switch from any topic into the most depressing subject imaginable.
"Poo. Who cares about the poor people right now. I used to be poor."
"Jiayi, your parents used to be poor, you've never been poor in your life."
"My parents immigrated to this country and made it, with hard work, and I got here with hard work. My grandmother had to give up all her wealth when the communist came to power and had to live in a pig-sty with my grandfather. My mother deserves to be proud of me."
"I thought you got here with connections," I murmur as I raise my eyebrows, smiling.
"And how do you think I got those? Of course, they are essential but they are not the only thing you need. Oh, no. I know why you're here now." She says as she holds her hand to her forehead.
"No, don't worry," I say, amused. "I won't ask for any favors this time. I actually have no idea why I'm here."
"Really, you just popped into Manhattan with no idea how you got here?"
"Of course not, I just-"
"Well, that wouldn't be too out of character. I don't know how you move so fast from one place to the next. It's like your GPS has ADD or something. Where did you come from this time, Brazil, Japan?" She says with a raised eyebrow, as if she's picturing me both with a kimono and a small bathing suit at the same time.
"Home, actually. I was home before I came here."
"Well, they sure dress funny in Florida, Alice. What on Earth are you wearing? I've been meaning to ask you for the longest time but I was too exited to see you. And where is all your luggage?" She says while she lifts my sleeves up for examination, as if I'm hiding it tinside the coat. "What a horrible shade of green."
"Umm... I believe I borrowed my coat from a stranger last night, and then I have to pick up my luggage at the airport tomorrow because they misplaced it. It was a morning flight, so I figured I'd get some partying done in the meanwhile." I've gotten pretty good at telling lies lately, or maybe she got used to my Alice-behavior. In any case, I don't give her too much time to ponder.
"So, while my luggage comes in, how about we go for some shopping?"
She instantly lights up with excitement. And while I enjoy watching how my trick got its intended effect, and hear her go on and on about 5th Avenue and Soho, my mind drifts off elsewhere. She's just the exact same friend I left back in Shanghai. That familiar feeling comes back. It's a recognition of somewhere I used to live in the past, combined with a surprised realization that I left. It culminates with the lingering sense that I'm still there but that I've been gone for so long that I forgot what it was really like.
I try to hold my smile, but my mind has broken into forbidden territory. I hear a small, forgotten voice ask me a strange, forgotten question.
Have you ever been in love with a shadow?
"No," I say out loud, without realizing it.
"Oh, but don't worry. It's on me then. We simply have to go eat some Dim Sum at this wonderful place in Chinatown. It'll be as if we never left!" I smile and nod, stupidly, like I have been for the last ten minutes without having listened to a word she said. Inside, I'm vigorously shaking my head. I don't want to go back there, I don't want to remember what it was like to feel that way. I want to forget I ever felt like every single fiber of my being was alive, because I don't feel that way anymore and I don't know if it will ever happen again. It wasn't real.
"Alice, stop nodding like an idiot. Do you want to go now?"
"Can I take a quick shower first? I promise I won't be long."
"Sure, girl, but don't take too long. Life is waiting for us out there."
I shut the door behind me and turn on the shower. As I take off my clothes and the hot mist gathers I try to look at the positive side. Sure, I have absolutely no control over my life, but at least I'm staying at a nice hotel today. Who knows where I would sleep if it weren't for my friends.
I begin to relax as the hot water runs down my skin and washes off the hangover.
Well, 'aint it swell doing swell with the swells in the swellest hotel of them all...