Hotels, Halibut, and Hightailin’ it
Today I thought I’d share a little story with you from my own life.
It was probably 2006 or 2007. Exact dates in my life are hard to place. I remember events, not calendars. I know it wasn’t my senior year, so that leaves out ’08 and ’09, and I wasn’t a freshman either. I would have been about 15 or 16 years old. I was off on a trip to Seattle for the biannual Junior Statesmen of America convention. For those who don’t know, JSA is basically a high school speech and debate organization. The hosting hotel was swarming with teenagers in suits being herded by frazzled chaperones. There was about six or seven of us coming from little old Eatonville, and our chaperones were Mr. and Mrs. Bell. Or Hill. To be honest, I can’t quite remember her name. I’m about as bad with names as I am with dates, but I know Mrs. Bell’s face. She was a kind, plump woman who had a certain air of authority that was necessary for keeping a crowd of independent high school kids in line. She was in charge of the JSA program, and her husband was here to keep an eye on the males in the party.
We were assigned rooms at random. I was bunking with two guys that I had only a passing acquaintance with. If it wasn’t for JSA I likely would have never reason to interact with either of them. Their names escape me as well. The one I knew best (but didn’t really know at all) had died his hair with a bright blue streak. The other roommate I have forgotten almost entirely. I can’t even place his face; the only memorable thing I can recall is that he was better friends with Blue Hair than I was, and that he was smart enough to order fish from the fish joint we scored dinner from that night. Growing up in the mountains I didn’t know swordfish from pollock. In my mind there where two kinds of fish: salmon and not salmon. Everyone in western Washington knows what salmon tastes like, but beyond that fish was a white, flaky mystery. Later my Alaskan wife would educate me on the wonders of good fish, but I wouldn’t meet her for at least four more years.
We picked this particular fish place on the grounds that it was the only thing open and nearby. Looking up at the menu I had no idea what I wanted to eat. I glanced over at Blue Hair, and he seemed similarly perplexed. Our comrade whose identity escapes me confidently ordered the halibut. Blue Hair and I chickened out and got hamburgers.
It was the worst hamburger I’ve ever tasted, and to this day I can still remember how tantalizingly flavorful that halibut dinner smelled. This event is my only notable memory of the man, so I’ll call him Hal.
Hal and Blue Hair were not my kind of people. I was a clean cut, shy, and extremely nerdy Christian boy. They cussed a blue streak, wore leather and chrome chains, and had no religion that I could make out. This didn’t bother me too much. I was used to being the odd one out at school. I stayed quiet and let them do the talking, throwing out an occasional comment now and then.
Now we may have had chaperones, but they showed us a remarkable amount of trust. For one thing, they opted to get a room together for themselves, leaving us to our own devices. They had laid down some ground rules ahead of time, however. Mrs. Bell made it extremely clear: if she found any girl in a boy’s room, or vice versa, then everyone involved in the incident would be sent home on the next Greyhound bus. Their parents would be called, even if it was 2:00 AM, and informed about the situation so that they could pick them up. I shuddered to think about such a thing happening to me: left at a bus station late at night by an angry chaperone, knowing that an equally disappointed parent would be waiting on the other end. I was glad that I didn’t have to worry about that happening. I had no girlfriend, so this seemed to be one rule I would have no trouble keeping.
After getting dinner I was looking forward to relaxing in our hotel room. Locked within it was the magic of cable TV, a rare luxury. We didn’t have it at home, for a variety of reasons. The stated reason was that we didn’t want to waste money on it, but there were purely practical concerns beyond that. We lived in a narrow valley almost two miles down a bumpy forest service road. I don’t think cable would stretch that far. The high valley walls also ensured that we only got about three channels off our antenna with any regularity. But now, for a couple nights, I would have access to over a hundred channels. The world was at my fingertips.
One of my roommates grabbed the remote first. Fortunately he settled on a Ricky Gervais comedy routine. I love stand-up comedy, so this was right up my alley. I prepared myself for a pleasant night of laughs, when there was a knock at the door.
Behind it, wearing leopard print tights, was Blue Hair’s girlfriend, Beth.
Beth strolled right in and made herself at home. All the while alarm bells were going off in my head. I broke free of my usual shyness and pointed out that she wasn’t allowed in here. Blue Hair blew me off. “Nobody will know.”
I didn’t press the point. I had survived in high school by following some pretty strict rules. One of them was to keep as low a profile as possible around anyone who had yet to earn my trust. I could have gotten into an argument about it with Blue Hair, but I didn’t want to make a scene. Besides, Hal seemed to be on Blue Hair’s side. At the very least he exuded an aura of nonchalance. He just didn’t care. I felt sure I couldn’t make them do anything, and even if I could I didn’t want to piss them off. So I did the only thing I could do. I picked up my book (I always had a book with me in those days) and left the room. I couldn’t control them, but I was responsible for my own decisions. I wasn’t going to risk being sent home for their sakes.
Of course, I didn’t really have anywhere to go.
I ended up going down a few floors until I found a bench I could sit on while I read my book. I can’t remember exactly what book it was, but I’m fairly sure it was science fiction. I can remember cramped words in a tiny font printed on cheap paper that had begun to yellow with age. Combined with the fact that it was a very thick little paperback leads me to believe it might have been Dune. I read for about two and a half hours. By that time my back ached and my mind was getting foggy. I was upset. After all, it was just as much my room as theirs. Why should I be exiled to the hallway because they can’t follow the rules?
I figured I’d go up and check in on them. Maybe Beth had left by now. When I got back to the room, however, everything was as I left it, including Beth.
I had an internal debate. Nothing had really changed; the smart and right thing to do would be to go back into the hallway. I wasn’t going to rat them out (I knew they weren’t up to any real trouble) but I wasn’t going to participate either. On the other hand I was tired of sitting on that bench, and I needed to take a break from my book (which makes it all the more likely it was Dune, now that I think about it). It had been two and a half hours and Blue Hair was right: nobody was going to catch them. I walked in and sat on the bed. Time to relax a little. I could always leave later.
About five minutes later there was a knock at the door. A loud one.
Hal and I looked at each other. Blue Hair stood up, and Beth tried to hide behind her chair. She did a good job of it too, but her hiding place wouldn’t hold up to any serious inspection. Blue Hair opened the door. Behind it was a chaperone. It wasn’t Mr. Bell, but someone from another school . Not that it mattered: all the chaperones had the same rulebook, and their jurisdiction didn’t stop at school lines. This guy was middle aged, and on the tall side. He didn’t look happy. “Are there any girls in here?” It was more of a demand then a question. My heart plummeted into my guts. This was it. I had done the right thing. I didn’t approve of this. I had waited in the hallway for hours. Yet, due to a moment of weakness, I was here, caught like the rest of them.
Blue Hair tried to play it cool. “No, no girls here.” He smiled reassuringly.
The chaperone was not impressed. “Really? So which one of you guys is wearing the leopard print tights someone saw walking in here?”
We were caught. There was no place for Beth to run to. If he came in here he would find her almost immediately. There was no chance that he would go away. Someone had seen her come in, and he wasn’t going to leave until he sorted this out. There was only one thing I could do.
Looking back on it, I’m not entirely sure how I pulled this off. I’m actually a little bit surprised that I had the confidence to try. But in the moment I didn’t think. I just acted, in the only way I knew how. As Blue Hair tried to explain how he had no idea what the chaperone was talking about I grabbed my book and stood up. I walked towards the door. In front of me was Blue Hair and the chaperone, who almost filled up the doorway. He looked very peeved. I calmly walked forward and said, in a polite and quiet tone, “Excuse me, I need a drink of water.”
I can still remember the faint look of surprise on the chaperone’s face. He stood aside and let me through, but I could see in his eyes that wheels were turning. I think it may have been an automatic response: if someone asks you politely to get out of the way, you typically do. It might have helped that I was completely calm. I kept walking at a slow and natural pace down the hallway. I didn’t look back. As soon as I was around the corner I began to run as quietly as I could. I got in the elevator and took it down to the floor with the bench. I got out, got some water at a drinking fountain (somehow it felt less like a deception if I actually had a drink) and started reading my book again.
About a half hour later I got a call on my cell phone. It was Mr. Bell. He sounded flustered. He asked me where I was. I said I was on the 5th floor, reading my book. There was a long silence. Finally he said “Okay, that’s good. I just wanted to know where you were,” and hung up. I went back to reading, and tried my best to lower my heartbeat. To this day I’m unsure whether Mr. Bell knew I was in the room and decided to let me off the hook, or whether he was just checking up on me.
After about an hour I got another call. It was Mrs. Bell. She was letting me know that my roommates had been found with a girl in the room, and had been sent home. I did my best to act surprised.
I had the TV to myself for the rest of the weekend.