I balanced my half of the “little friends” on the welcome plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries on the bedside tray that had been left for me by the hotel manager, replacing his welcome note to me with a one for my boyfriend. He was due to arrive while I was getting a Nordic Princess massage at Stein Eriksen Lodge’s spa in Deer Valley, Utah.
Vic and I were meeting up for a close of the ski season weekend in late March. In fact, the only times I saw my boyfriend were on rendezvous such as these as I live in Los Angeles and he in Tucson. We’d met each other a few years prior on a mountain biking/river rafting/elephant safari/trekking the Himalayas multi-sport trip with REI Adventures in Nepal. We shared the same love of adventure travel and our long-distance relationship consisted mainly of traveling together.
The “little friends” collection began when we started dating more seriously. Or, when we started referring to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. It was just before a hiking/cycling/kayaking trip to New Zealand over Christmas. I’d given him a card with a miniature Santa glued to the front. “Secret Santa”, he would soon be called, as he mysteriously appeared in unsuspecting places. A little friend who appeared with his red Santa hat peering out of a fleece pocket while hiking Mt. Cook or cinched into the harness on one of three bungee jumps we did in Queenstown.
At a roadside stop after sea kayaking in the Milford Sound, Vic got on the bus with a second new friend, a kiwi finger puppet luanching what would become a collection of travel mascots.
“Liddo lamb” joined the gang symbolizing the near-miss sacrificial lamb we worried about all night on New Years’ eve. We could hear him baaa-aaaing all night too close to a bonfire across the street from our lodge not far from Paparoa National Park. The lamb had been vandalized by what looked to be tourists with Swiss army knives hatching square patches of wool from his coat. Fearing we’d awake to the lamb on his side keeled over from smoke inhalation the next morning, I kept begging Vic to go free him during the night. He survived anyway and while I wanted to bring him back with me to Los Angeles, it seemed more practical to carry a 3-inch lamb with a hand-sewn smile instead. We went thru the entire basket looking for a perfectly symmetrical smile before arriving at “Liddo”.
Before going to bed at night after a long day’s hike, bike or kayak, we’d line the little friends up next to a candle like a religious shrine to watch over us. By mid-trip, they’d earned semi-celebrity status as other people on our trip wanted their photos taken with the little friends say, under the waterfall in the rainforest hiking up to Fox Glacier or in a meadow of wild flowers near Okarito.
In Fiji, we added “Turd-o” a brown wooden turtle. On travels we weren’t together on, the first thing we’d ask the other upon return wasn’t “how was the trip” but instead, “did you find any little friends?”
It was a tall order to qualify as a little friend. A little friend had to be well, little or under three inches more precisely and in proportion to the other friends. You couldn’t have a six-inch long lizard say from Baja no matter how cute or a troll in lederhosen from Germany with hair that towered over Kiwi, it just wouldn’t work.
Vic sent me “Bunstee” a little bunny on the Easter we spent apart that Spring. When we’d part ways at an airport after traveling together, we’d divvy up the little friends. They represented the absence and the longing we felt for one another. When Vic would call, he’d always ask about the little friends, wanting to know if they were bedside keeping vigil. When we’d rendezvous after exchanging hugs and kisses, the first thing we’d do is reunite the little friends. His set of little friends might send a postcard to the little friends I had during the long weeks apart.
I kept a photo of all the little friends sitting in the snow in Vail in a frame Vic got me in seaside village of Punakaiki in New Zealand. The little friends had been part of a Valentine gift surprise in Vail standing in formation inside the chocolate kisses that formed a heart with two necklaces wrapped in the center.
The little friends had conversations with each other the way couples talk through pets when they can’t openly display their feelings for each other. “Does Liddo Lamb miss Kiwi?” Vic would ask.
“Yes, she’s been baaa-aahing herself to sleep every night putting little Xs on her sheep herder calendar wondering when she’s going to see him again.” I’d reply.
The little friends had a rocky go of it the month leading up to ski trip to Utah. Vic almost didn’t come which meant one half of the little friends might forget who the other half was. We’d had tearful phone calls arguing about how long it had actually been since we’d last seen each other and his cavalierness about not committing to when the next time might be or if he’d actually come until minutes before the 14-day advance ticket had to be purchased. My friends grew weary of being backup for a trip I was off to when once again my non-committal boyfriend waffled back and forth on if he was going or not.
The relaxation of the Nordic princess massage quickly vanished when I returned to my room and noticed the little friends absent from the bed tray. The maids had obviously come for the bed turndown service. The bedspread was folded and set aside, sheets turned down with chocolates on the pillow and the bedside welcome tray exactly as I’d left it except for the little friends. I looked under the bed, around the perimeter of the dresser, or anyplace a little 3-inch friend could have rolled or leapt off. Nothing.
I checked my wallet to see if any cash was missing. All there. Credit cards, all in order. My jewelry, ditto. Initially, the idea of someone stealing the little friends seemed unthinkable.
The phone rang. It was Vic who, not surprisingly had missed his plane. He wouldn’t be there until the next morning. I was livid. He’d bragged countless times before about how close he cut it getting to the airport like a badge of tardiness that he could hold up an airplane with an entire flight steaming because he had to gate check his bag. Post 9-11, this no longer served him. They wouldn’t let him gatecheck his bag or let him get on the plane sending it on a following flight. His only choice was the catch the first morning’s flight.
When he called the next morning to tell me he’d meet me mid-slope once he got in, I broke the news about the little friends. I hadn’t realized it was first of the month and he took it as an April fool’s joke. When he joined me on the chairlift, the first thing I noticed is he hadn’t brushed his teeth. Smelled like a bad combination of Southwest airlines peanuts and stale coffee. He leaned in to kiss me and I turned to let him kiss me on the cheek. “You’re still mad? You’re not going to even kiss me?” He said, “How ‘bout Liddo Lamb will she kiss me?”
“They’re gone.” He gave me a look of disbelief. “Yes, Really.” We sat silently the rest of the chairlift ride up.
When we returned to the room, he kept waiting for Kiwi or Santa to jump out of a hotel robe pocket, peer out of a pillowcase or be sandwiched between the shampoo and crème rinse in the shower stall. Nothing.
We slept with our backs to each other that night. The next morning when it finally sunk in I wasn’t kidding about the April Fool’s Vic wanted to know if I had called anyone. “You mean like the police?” I said.
“Well, no but hotel security or management.” He said, implying I’d been careless to not have gotten on the trail sooner.
“What do I say? The little friends have been abducted? Send out an amber alert?” I placed the call to the front desk. “Yes, it seems there’s been a theft in my room.” They wanted more particulars. “Uh well,” I grasped. “They were little uh, small toys I guess you’d call them. A finger puppet, a stuffed Santa, a wooden turtle…” I went on. “No sir, we don’t have any children in the room.” “The value? You mean the monetary value? Oh, I don’t know about twenty-five dollars but they hold sentimental value.” I grew embarrassed taking such a serious tone about what he seemingly noted as insignificant items.
He dismissively said he’d check with housekeeping and get back with me. I went on to explain how I’d left them on a tray that might have been viewed as hotel trinkets you might find in say, a happy meal. Maybe they thought these were some end-of-the-season trinkets for guests with children. Perhaps the maids at a moment’s glance thought the room didn’t indicate children, didn’t know I hadn’t already seen the welcome plate and thought I’d never be the wiser if said missing toys were absent. I babbled on hoping if I didn’t sound too accusatory I’d give them an out to cop to lifting the little friends. The manager informed me these housekeepers had already left for the season and were headed to their native Guatemala.
I pictured a Maria somebody with the little friends stowed away in her luggage bound for the homeland to be adopted by little Guatamalan children. This image did not warm my heart one iota. Screw the poor children of Guatemala. I wanted the little friends back without any grubby Guatemalan hands on them. The manager said he’d take my contact information and call me on their return.
Back and forth my boyfriend and I argued over whose fault it was. I was accused of being careless leaving them out it plain sight, practically taunting the maids to steal them. I blamed him. If he’d caught his plane maybe he’d have been there when housekeeping came to turn down the bed linens.
The same sort of arguments that likely took place in the Lindenburgh family when their baby was kidnapped. I insisted my boyfriend, try and weasel the names and phone numbers of the Guatemalan housekeepers from the manager explaining he’s fluent in Spanish. Insist he only intended to have a friendly chat with them. Get them on the phone then reveal he’s an immigration attorney (who normally helps immigrants into the country but leaving that detail out) instead, he might mention only the words immigration, attorney and imply housekeeping might find themselves banned from the US with criminal charges if they didn’t cough up our pequeno compadres.
The manager, perhaps now fearing retaliation and something certain to end up on the six o’clock news, wouldn’t release their names much less their phone numbers. He assured us when they returned from vacation, he’d have a word with them. He insisted they’ve not had any thefts and surely I must have just “misplaced my items”. He kept calling them “items” which only annoyed me all the more.
Weeks passed. The Guatemalans returned with memories of the delight of their little ones back home overjoyed by the tiny items from America. The manager dismissively assured me his people hadn’t known anything about my items and perhaps a check might just put this matter to rest.
“How much were they worth?” the manager wanted to know again.
The relationship was now down the toilet. Vic and I hardly spoke since getting back from the trip. I’d stopped asking about his half of the little friends. What was the point really now that the whole pack was ripped apart. He’d given me Bunstee as a consolation but I didn’t want him sitting alone by the alarm clock –too depressing– instead he started to collect dust in a bowl next to some pocket change. I totaled the monetary value of the “items” and suggested the manager might kick in some postage to cover costs from Fiji and New Zealand.
By the time the check arrived from the Lodge, the relationship was completely over. Vic had flown out to try and salvage things. I’d since found he had a profile up on an Internet dating site. He’d come out to LA one last time but I’d lost all interest. He waited until I lost any fondness be it love or something else. I’d already shed tears in the countless fights we had over the phone. He insisted I still must care for him but I didn’t. He waited until after I had nothing left but numbness for him to tell me he loved me for the first time and had always thought I’d be the mother of his children. That made me misty-eyed but what really made me heave sobs was when he said, “what about the little friends. Tell me you’ll always keep the photo of the little friends in the frame.”
Editor’s note: This story originally was published on Divinecaroline.com. The little friends photo remains in a frame somewhere in my basement. After the breakup, I went to inquire about putting my eggs on ice. The visit to my OB would ultimately result in my decision to pursue motherhood solo enlisting the help of a spermbank and the marvels of modern medicine. I gave birth at the ripe advanced maternal age of 44. (Read: Last Call.)