It had been ten years since Holly Pettit stood in the lobby of the Imperial Palms Hotel. And as she wheeled her suitcase in through the oversized revolving door, the past came rushing back to her. Through the marble floors and walls, through the long registration desk. Through the glittering chandelier still hanging over the fountain circled by a collection of elegant, curved sofas. Through the art-deco-style palm fronds carved above the desk and into the arched, acoustically perfect ceiling. Even the very smell of the place caught her off guard, drew her in.
Wow. She'd expected coming back to be easier than this. She'd expected it to be fun. Instead, she felt as if she'd just taken a slug to the gut.
"Oh my God, isn't this great! It's just the same!"
Holly looked to her best friend from high school, Lori, standing beside her, wide-eyed, as she took it all in. The Imperial Palms was one of South Beach's largest and grandest art-deco-era hotels, then and now. And she'd expected to feel the way Lori appeared to at the moment--she'd expected to be reliving that first time they'd walked through this same door back when they were two bright-eyed farm girls from Indiana.
She and Lori had worked here the summer between their freshman and sophomore years of college at Purdue--it had seemed so daring and adventurous to spend the summer so far away from the small town where they'd both grown up. South Beach had sounded alluring and exotic, and the hotel had been just as historically majestic as in their fantasies.
So when Lori, now an advertising exec in Orlando, had invited Holly to meet her in Miami for a getaway to their old stomping grounds, it had sounded like a good idea. But maybe being here now, in the flesh, was just a little too real. It was funny how memories worked, how they could steal over you so intensely, how they could even sometimes pull you back in time. And for Lori right now, that was clearly a good thing, a happy thing--she didn't even notice when Holly failed to reply. But for Holly... Lord, why hadn't she thought more about this first? After all, she was busy making a new life for herself--she didn't need to be drawn back into old recollections that had left her broken inside.
Strangely, as they moved to the registration desk, she found herself scanning the large lobby and realized she was actually looking for him. As if he would actually be here. As if she would instantly recognize him ten years later, ten years older. As if maybe through some uncanny twist of fate he, too, would have shown up here on vacation this week.
That's the kind of irrational thinking he caused in you for a long time. He messed you up so badly inside. Don't even waste your thoughts on him--he's not worth it.
And normally, she didn't think about him--it had probably been a couple of years since he'd crossed her mind. It was just a little more difficult now that she was here, in the very place where their entire summer romance had happened. She'd lost her virginity in this hotel. She'd fallen in love walking the stretch of South Beach that spanned the property. Oh God, it was stupid to have come here. But she supposed she'd thought she was really, truly over him. Over all that had happened. Yet maybe things like that never really went away. You might think they had, but maybe they were just hiding under the surface, waiting for the right opportunity to bubble up again.
She stayed silent, in the background, as Lori checked them into an oceanfront room they could only have dreamed of affording when they were eighteen.
"Can you believe we're really here again, Holl?" Lori asked as they started away from the wide marble desk toward the elevators.
"Not really," she said.
And that was when Lori finally noticed. "What's wrong? You don't look happy. It's eighty degrees outside, the sun is shining, and we have three glorious days of South Beach decadence ahead of us. How on earth can you not be happy?"
"I guess I'm just remembering some of the stuff that happened while we were here," she said as the elevator doors closed them into privacy.
And then Lori finally caught on, grimacing. "Oh no. Don't tell me you're thinking about Trey. And the breakup. I thought you were over that, Holly. And...well, if you want to travel down memory lane here, think about the good parts. You were in love. You discovered the joys of sex. You had the best summer of your life."
Holly could only sigh. There was something horribly sad about knowing the best was behind her, that her happiness in life had peaked so early. And yeah, she should be able to look back on her romance that summer in a happy way, but...she just couldn't. Still. "You know how deeply it wounded me. It changed...everything."
And that was putting it mildly. At the end of her magical summer, she and Trey had agreed to stay together, to do the long-distance relationship thing, him at Florida State, her back in Indiana. They'd promised road trips and meeting halfway. They'd promised e-mails and phone calls. Which never came. He'd never called, never written. Not once after the morning they'd said goodbye. And her continued attempts at communication had gone completely unanswered. It had been bad enough to lose him, but for him to be so cold and unfeeling, to leave her so emotionally abandoned...it still took her breath away to recall. "I was so in love with him, Lori. I wanted to marry him."
"I know. I remember. I was there."
And the truth was that she'd just...never really recovered. In fact, she'd dropped out of school by Christmas that year. And she'd made other drastic, life-altering moves, too. She'd started hanging out with less reliable friends than Lori. And then she'd taken the money she'd saved all summer waiting tables at the hotel and gone on a trip with one of those friends to Las Vegas--where she'd actually decided to stay. "And you also know that's when I kind of...lost hope in love and let it change me," she said now, recounting some of the events of that time to Lori.
Even so, after that, life had worked out okay in a lot of ways. She'd managed to get a good job at the corporate offices of a major lingerie retailer, Adrianna, Inc. She'd gotten a nice apartment, made new friends.
But she'd also gotten...wild. As in promiscuous. She'd had a lot of sex. With both men and women. And she'd thought she was having fun--hell, she had been having fun. Until one day about a year ago when she'd awakened one morning with the sense that it all suddenly felt...a little empty. And that she wanted more out of life. "I just became someone very different than I ever thought I'd be."
But now she was trying to get back on track. Change her wild ways. Make some improvements in herself. Once upon a time, she'd planned to go to law school, become an attorney. But she'd blown her shot at that when she'd dropped out of college. Now, though, at twenty-eight, she'd just completed a night course to become a paralegal, and though she'd spent many happy years at Adrianna, Inc., she knew it was time to move on.
Lori had stuck by her--even being so far away--throughout all the changes she'd undergone, and part of the reason for suggesting this trip had been to celebrate the completion of Holly's paralegal training and her imminent change in career.
So it just didn't seem fair to be thrust back into the emotions that had, in some ways, truly derailed her life.
As they stepped into the upscale room, both girls abandoned their suitcases and walked to the wide balcony facing the ocean. And as they looked out on the splendorous stretch of sand that was South Beach, packed with tanning bodies on this sunny spring day, Lori said to her, "Well, you've always been you deep down. No matter what, you're still my sunny, funny, sweet, cheerful Holly."
At which Holly could only shrug. She was known among her friends and colleagues for her sunny disposition, but at the moment she felt like a downer.
"And right now," Lori said, "you're making all these good changes, so I'm thinking you should use your time here to make another one. Make new memories here and forget the old. Find a way to move on from what happened after that summer, once and for all."
Holly took in Lori's advice and let it settle inside her, finally deciding her friend was right--she needed to be tougher about this. Besides, she'd flown all this way and was spending a healthy chunk of her savings on this trip, so she had to enjoy it. "You're right," she finally said. "You're completely, absolutely right."
"Come on," Lori said, "let's get into our bikinis, hit the pool, and find a couple of hot guys to make those new memories with."
Yet, at this, Holly flinched. "I'm up for the bikini and the pool, but no guy this time around. No more casual sex for me, girlfriend. I just want some innocent fun in the sun here--you can keep all the guys for yourself."
Fifteen minutes later, Holly and Lori exited the hotel's back door to the pool area, a place rich with wicker lounge chairs, palm trees, and a plethora of lush, potted plants. After picking out a couple of chairs in the sun, they put on sunscreen, ordered a couple of umbrella drinks from a college-age waitress doing the same job they'd done ten years ago, and lay back to relax.
As Holly flipped through a magazine she'd picked up especially for poolside browsing, she could see from her peripheral vision that Lori was already checking out guys. And if Holly were in a different place in her life, if she hadn't ended up going down such a surprisingly wanton road over the past years, it would be fun to guy-watch and flirt along with her friend. But as it was, she just kept her eyes on her magazine, taking in the latest celebrity fashions.
Until a deep male voice said, "Enjoying your stay at the Imperial Palms, ladies?"
She caught the sight of linen trousers next to her, and realized this was someone who worked here, making the rounds to ensure the guests' needs were being met. "We just arrived," she said, lifting her gaze, "but so far, everything's wonderful."
And that was when she found herself looking into the eyes of Trey Kennedy, the guy she'd fallen in love with here when she was eighteen years old, the guy who'd broken her heart.
Only he was all grown up now and more handsome than ever.
Looked like she was able to recognize him after all.