In the sixties, the Palace Hotel resembled a castle with Victorian-era decor and intimidating furnishings. The green velvet chairs with ornately carved arms in Lila’s bedroom seemed too formal to sit in. The satin bedcovers, monogrammed with a large, flowery PH, were so heavy she dreamed of drowning the first few nights of vacation. The only thing she liked was the extra-long bathtub in which she floated every afternoon, and the huge towels warmed by their special holder. She lingered, wrapped in one of those towels, as long as possible before dressing for the ritual, four-course dinners in the hotel dining room.
Lila hated the inevitable tension at meals regarding whatever dress her mother picked out for her. Clothes and manners were Grandmother Jacqui’s favorite topic. The inadequacy of Lila’s wardrobe was Jacqui’s frequent target. It allowed her to imply that Lila’s mother lacked the taste and sophistication to be a proper member of the Taylor family.
Back in the States, Lila’s grandparents insisted their grandchildren join them every Sunday for the country club brunch without their parents. Both Lila and her brother, Tad, were thus expected to dress appropriately. One recent Sunday, when Jacqui eyed Lila’s new yellow culotte dress and said, “Doesn’t your mother know how to dress a young lady?” Lila exclaimed, “Leave my mother alone!” Startled by her own anger, she became immediately self-conscious when she realized club members were discreetly eyeing them.
“There, there, dear, now let’s not spoil this nice meal.” Jacqui gesticulated with her manicured, bejeweled hand for Lila to sit, her aquiline face, its small, tight mouth stern.
“I’m serious.” Lila had remained standing, clutching the chairback despite the nervous wobble in her legs. No one took on her grandmother, not her sons, nor her patrician husband, who called her “Sunshine.” Lila had waited for some sign of capitulation. Her grandmother cleared her throat, then said, “I just want the best for you, Lila.” Lila didn’t believe her, but decided that that was the closest she’d get to an apology and sat down.
Since then Jacqui had refrained from criticism, but St. Moritz was another matter. Dressing for dinner was required. Jacqui, who featured herself as European royalty first, a Midwestern American by default, expected her son, his wife, Lila, and her younger brother, Tad, to corroborate her status, and therefore scrutinized them constantly.
As often as he could, Lila’s father shepherded his family away from Jacqui and her titled friends. Lila hated the crammed funicular ride up the mountain. Eleven years old, armpit height in the crowd of rowdy Germans exuding stale beer and garlic, she burrowed her head in her father’s blue parka to escape the fumes and tried to breathe as little as possible. Exiting the cable car at the top of the mountain was a perilous scramble of clanking metal and motion. People raced to recover their skis from the wire mesh baskets on the side of the car as if there were some prize for being the first one on the slope. Her father tried to shield both her and Tad, but it was impossible not to get jostled or stepped on. Once she plunked her skis down on the snow, it was relatively easy to snap boots into bindings, slip goggles down, and follow her father down his chosen route. Her mother was not a strong skier and cautiously brought up the rear.
Lila sighed. It had been a good day for skiing. Crystal-blue sky. Packed, light snow. Uncrowded. Lila was a good skier. It was one thing she was certain of, and the Alps didn’t differ from other mountains she had skied. There were no new rules or protocol to maintain…just the open page of a slope and its particular terrain.
The effortless speed felt close to having wings. Mornings passed too quickly as the family ascended and descended. Although Lila was hungry by midday, she would have skipped lunch if she could have. Lunch was another trying social performance as they met Jacqui and Grandfather Bill at the Corviglia Club, a private luncheon club midway up the mountain. The more athletic celebrities and royals were members and gathered for a leisurely lunch after a few runs with their private guides. The only appealing feature for Lila and Tad, her brother, was the incongruous slide that connected the more formal main floor and dining area to the ground floor below. There the ski guides sat on benches at communal tables, eating soup, wurst, cheese, and thick crusty bread while they told stories, teased each other, and laughed.
As soon as it was possible, Lila and Tad left the adults upstairs and slid down into their warm camaraderie. The guides varied in age and spoke a potpourri of French, Italian, Swiss, German, and English. “Lee-la and brudder, Tade,” Anton, the wiry, blue-eyed prankster of the group, exclaimed whenever she and Tad appeared. He patted the seat next to him, indicating for them to sit and offering them a slice of cheese, apple, or whatever the day’s fare was. The talk continued in a smattering of languages. The men sometimes slapped each other affectionately on the back or laughed at some joke that she mostly misunderstood because the subject matter was too adult or didn’t translate well.
All the same, she felt comfortable and accepted as the conversation dipped and swirled. By the end of the first week of vacation, she knew the names of the regulars and had a sense of their different characters. Dark-haired Walter, apparently the youngest, was reserved and, Lila suspected, shy. Small and compact, Tonio was talkative and gesticulated wildly when he spoke, which was frequently. Tall blond Axel was the handsomest and most sedate. Georgio was the respected, grizzled senior guide to whom even Anton deferred. They each had their regular, daily clients whom they companionably steered onto runs with the best snow and away from crowds. Generally, they didn’t speak about their clientele as if there was an unspoken rule of confidentiality among them. Lila knew from observation that Anton’s charge was Princess Margot of Lichtenstein, a tawny blonde with perfect features who always appeared completely coifed even after a morning of skiing. Lila admired her style but couldn’t imagine ever attaining such sophistication. Anton was playful even with the princess, who didn’t seem to object and sometimes even ventured downstairs to fetch him when ready to leave.
Lila chuckled as she recalled Anton’s prank at today’s lunch, a hearty cheese fondue into which everyone dipped pieces of bread and apple. It was soft yet crunchy, cheesy and warm, the perfect meal. Anton had opened a bottle of white wine and set the cork next to his plate, winking at her as she downed a piece of dunked bread. Lila was confused. He was up to something, but she had no idea what it was. All the other guides seemed oblivious until he speared the cork with his fondue fork. Talk subsided as everyone looked at Anton quizzically. He held a finger to his lips, then tilted his head toward the stairs. There was a collective catch of breath as each guide registered Anton’s plan. Lila didn’t get it until she heard Princess Margot calling as she descended the stairs in a form-fitting red ski suit. Anton dipped the cork and rolled it in the warm cheese so it became indistinguishable from a chunk of bread. Lila watched in horrified suspense as Anton, with exaggerated flair, offered the fake bread to the princess, who politely obliged by taking a bite. Margot sputtered, then gesticulated for a napkin, which Lila immediately handed her. Anton grinned and laughed. Margot’s eyebrows lifted as she took a breath. The other guides were silent. “Tu es méchant, Anton.” The princess wagged a finger, although with a slight smile, then firmly ordered him to accompany her as she ascended. Anton stood and shrugged his shoulders, palms up, as if expressing powerlessness over his mischief.
Lila envied Anton’s insouciance and ease with everyone regardless of their social position. Anticipating another dreary formal dinner, she sighed as she closed the bath drain and opened the brass spigots. The running water or her own reverie obscured the knocking on her door. “Lila, come quickly!” Her silver-haired grandfather in his dinner tuxedo materialized in the doorway. “Fire!” With his entrance came an acrid odor of smoke. “I must tell the others.” He wheeled around and left. Still in long underwear, she threw on a sweater and sneakers before running out of the room and down the hall to the stairway, bypassing other guests gathered at the elevator. Adrenaline took over, and she bolted down flight after flight of beige cement stairs.
By the time she halted, she had no idea where she was. She struggled to open a heavy metal door leading to a dimly lit, bare hallway. Hearing voices to the right, she followed the sound until she emerged into what looked like a massive pantry where several blue uniformed women and a man in chef’s garb bustled around. No one noticed her, and she was too disoriented and panicked to speak. She stood there panting until one woman with a soft, tired face exclaimed, “Bonjour, Mademoiselle, avez-vous un problème?” She switched to an accented English. “Can we help you?”
Lila stammered, “T-t-there’s a fire upstairs…I ran.” She paused, then asked, “Where am I?”
The woman clucked sympathetically while the others seemed to register what Lila said and began to murmur. “You are on the kitchen floor above the garage.”
“How do I…” Lila felt faint and slightly embarrassed. “I mean, if there’s a fire, shouldn’t we get out of here?” She scanned the room looking for an outside exit. The woman wiped her hands on a towel, untied her apron, and laid it on what looked like a marble table top, put a warm hand on Lila’s arm. “Please. You follow me? I take you out.” The other staff gathered their things, preparing to leave. “I am called Mimi.”
“I am Lila,” Lila responded as she followed Mimi through a labyrinth of doors and hallways. Their footsteps resounded hollowly on the hard, polished floors. The other staff followed behind, oddly silent. Thankful for Mimi’s guidance, Lila wondered if anyone ever got lost in the morass of thick walls. It felt like they walked for ten minutes or more before reaching a huge wooden door which Mimi strained to open. They stepped out into frosty air and a sky transitioning from blue to black. Lila, not recognizing her surroundings, grabbed Mimi’s hand. Mimi said her farewells to the others, who vanished quickly into the shadows. Still holding Lila’s hand, Mimi tucked her arm under Lila’s before saying, “Now then, shall we go find your parents?”
As they rounded what seemed like several blocks, they saw the arc of the main entrance’s driveway clustered with chattering people in evening clothes, robes, or casually dressed. Smoke trailed high up from the east side of the hotel. Lila clutched Mimi’s hand as she surveyed the crowd, looking for anyone familiar. Two uniformed men stood under the hotel’s arch, blocking the main entrance. A couple stood in front of them, pointing upwards. Lila shouted, “Dad, Mom, I’m here,” while gripping Mimi’s hand and pulling her along as they wove through the crowd. Her parents, with their backs to the crowd, couldn’t hear her above the commotion until she threw her arms around them. When they turned, the worry and relief in their faces triggered Lila’s pent-up tears. She stammered, “Grandpa came…and there was smoke…I ran down the stairs as fast as I could then…she.” She introduced Mimi while continuing to cry.
Mimi murmured, “She was lost…no wonder, it is a big hotel,” then smiled at Lila.
Lila’s mother pressed Mimi’s hand. “Thank you…we are so grateful. We looked all over for her. We thought something terrible happened. Her grandparents and brother are still combing the neighborhood, asking everyone they can.”
This news made Lila even more miserable. She felt like wailing, but instead sniffled and swallowed her sobs. She hated drawing attention. Some guests looked their way, curious about the agitated little knot of family with a uniformed servant in their midst. “She was no problem, Madame,” Mimi affirmed as Lila’s mother repeatedly apologized for her wayward daughter. Mimi, obviously trying to extricate herself, bowed slightly while she backed away. Lila, sorry to see her go, refrained from asking if she could visit her in the hotel, intuiting that such a request would amplify everyone’s discomfort. With her father’s arm around her shoulders, she waved and continued waving until Mimi vanished into the smoke-stained night.
“You gave us a good scare.” Her father squeezed her, looking at her quizzically. “Where did you end up?” His eyes were interested, not disapproving.
“Mimi said it was the kitchen wing…over the garage.” Lila leaned into her father, relieved and suddenly extremely tired. It had been a more stressful than good adventure.
Relaxing, Lila’s eyes refocused and her gaze widened. Firemen were exiting the hotel, apparently finished with their job. The smoke had thinned to a trickle. Streetlights blinked on. The doormen began to remove the blue barricades circling the entrance. Some onlookers looked familiar to Lila, like the stooped, gray-haired man standing behind her father. His angular face, with its wrinkled seams and prominent nose, resembled an eagle’s head. A worn eagle, she thought, noticing his frayed robe and scuffed slippers. A diminutive woman, in what looked like a pink velvet track suit, clung to his left elbow. Was he holding her up, or were they holding each other up? Lila wondered. Baron and Baroness Esterhazy! They looked so plain and ordinary. As she surveyed the crowd looking for Tad and her grandparents, her grandparents’ friends, devoid of their finery, became recognizable. Along the crowd’s periphery, two people, holding hands with the boy between them, emerged from a side street. The boy strained against their hold as if urging them forward. “Tad, Granji, Pop-Pop!” she exclaimed, jumping up and down and pointing them out to her father, who began to wave his arms overhead. Her grandmother’s relieved smile was visible even at a distance.
As a psychotherapist for over thirty years, Leisha feels blessed to have satisfying work and time to write. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in many journals including The Alembic, Corium Magazine, The Cortland Review, Thin Air Journal and Forge. A collaborative book of hers is currently showcased at the Marin County’s Desta Gallery.