Geoff looked up at dozens of ferns that that fluttered over balconies of the front-entrance awning. He stared at Poppy, and his jaw fell.
“Welcome to the Park Plaza Hotel.” Poppy bowed and held the door open for him. “Right this way, Sir.”
Above the entrance, where the only natural light shone, six vertical windows, like dominos, lined the doorway. The all-wood walls in the foyer made the lobby dark, in spite of two inset fan-shaped windows that served more as a display on either side of the front doors.
Spanish antique tiles on the floor peeked out from an oriental rug that looked to be twenty by thirty feet. A mirror ran the length of one wall where a leather camel-colored over-sized couch and matching chairs—deeply tufted—welcomed guests who’d become enchanted by green palms, pale pink hydrangea, and a pair of Tiffany lamps. An enormous ceramic planter, painted in the trompe l’oeil style to look like a wicker basket, held an enormous variety of green sprigs. Plush and inviting.
Just two feet from the all-cherry front desk, a wooden staircase with an oriental runner and large brass handrails led guests upstairs under an ivory painted tray ceiling.
Geoff blinked his way inside, as he took in his surroundings. He looked back at Poppy, a dazed expression on his face. “How can we do this?”
“Well, we are 21.” Poppy looped her elbow in his.
Geoff spoke to their reflection in the mirror. “You made a reservation?”
Poppy grinned a nod.
“You got us a room here?” Still astonished, yet grinning with unconditional joy, he rephrased his earlier question. As if asking it in a new way would convince him he wasn’t in a dream. Not tangible. Not part of every male college student’s reverie.
Geoff lowered their bags slowly. “How will you—or we—pay for this?”
“I have my ways.” A coy smile. “Stay right here,” she whispered in his ear. “I’ll get the key.”
A young man in a white dress shirt and navy slacks checked Poppy in. He handed her a gold key on a ring, an oval brass disc etched with Park Plaza Hotel Room 220.
The stairway’s soft lighting caused both of their eyelids to flicker. Geoff set down their bags and turned the key. “Wow Honch, look at this,” he said and burst into the room— leaving their suitcases in the hall. “And a balcony.” He turned sideways, and his dimple flashed at Poppy. He ceremoniously opened the French veranda doors that overlooked Park Avenue. He squeezed past the two wicker chairs and table, and leaned his elbows on the wrought iron railing like an excited tourist on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras.
Poppy stood behind him and softly clapped her hands together—a silent acknowledgement to herself that she’d done it. She’d surprised him.
Geoff turned, his expression, pure delight. “I can’t believe we’re actually staying here.” His gaze drifted past Poppy and fell on a brass bed. He rushed over and sat on the edge. “Oh my God, a king-size bed!” He jiggled up and down and patted the downy pink, green, and white floral spread—an invitation for Poppy. He wiggled his eyebrows. “I can’t wait to check this out with you.”
Poppy kissed his dimple. “So you like your birthday present so far?”
“Are you kidding?” He leapt up and opened the hand-painted doors of the armoire, the glossy mahogany shelves an offer to make hotel guests at home. “This is great.” He spun back to look around the room. His eyes fell on the open door where their luggage remained—dumped in the excitement. “Oh shit. I forgot our stuff.”
At the balcony entrance, Geoff turned his head toward the room. He waved her over. “C’mere Honch.”
She ducked under his arm, and his hand rested on her shoulder. “I love that I surprised you.” She lifted her chin. “Do you know where we’ll have dinner?”
“No, where?” He gazed at her face as if it held the answers to all life’s mysteries.
Poppy steered Geoff inside. “Downstairs, at the Park Plaza Gardens.”
“That’s easy.” He laid his hands on her waist and steered her backwards. “Afterwards, we can come right upstairs and explore this,” he whispered, and guided her to sit on the edge of the bed.
“Okay.” She grinned, and straightened. She folded her hands on her lap, and with a soft voice, said, “I need to ask a favor of you.”
His hand on her back, he faced her, his expression earnest. “Sure, Honch.”
“After dinner, you know, when we head back up here.” Her words stumbled. “I’m just wondering…” She searched his face for something.
“What is it, Honch?” Geoff shifted sideways, his knee resting on the bed.
“Well, do you mind doing me a favor? I know it’s silly…” Poppy looked down at her fingers.
Geoff lowered his head to see her eyes. “What is it, Honch? Just tell me.”
Poppy took a breath and hurriedly exhaled her request. “Would you come up to our room here a few minutes before me? And then I’ll follow.”
The corners of Geoff’s mouth drifted inward. “Okaaaaay.” He leaned back. “And why am I doing this?” His forehead creased in curious confusion.
“Don’t be mad. It’s just that…” She braved a glance at his face and lowered her eyes once more. “Well, I don’t want to seem promiscuous. You know, a slut.”
“And who would think that?” His eyes widened. “Who would see us? The desk clerk?”
“Well you never know,” she whined. “And yes, maybe the desk clerk.”
Geoff tsked. “The desk clerk that you’ll probably never see again?”
Poppy shifted to face him, her knee matching his. “Well, what if my parents stay here and the desk clerk says to me, ‘Oh nice to see you again. Are you and your husband also staying with us? Do you want the same room as last time?’ ” Poppy shuddered.
“Aghhh God, Honch—you’re too funny!” Geoff laughed. “You’re kidding, right?” He cocked his head, and grinned. “Why was it okay when we just checked in, and after dinner it won’t be okay?”
“Well, we’re going right back down—now.” She bounced slightly, as if that gave her rationale some momentum. “So maybe he’ll think just one of us will stay here.”
“Sure, I’ll do it.” He shook his head. “You’re something else.” He caressed her shoulder.
Poppy turned her head away from him and faced the armoire.
“What’s the matter?” He pulled back a veil of hair that shielded her cheek. “Are you crying?”
“You’re not upset because I laughed, are you?” He pushed back her hair again.
She shook her head. “No, it’s because you’re so good to me.” She stared at him, as splotches of red began to appear on her face. “You’re not angry with me because I act like such a squirrel? That I’m so weird about this?”
She smoothed the spread with her hands. “It’s just that I was raised to be proper. And now I’m clearly fallen.” She exaggerated the words. “My mother used to tell me that she’d put me in a convent if I had sex before marriage.” Poppy wagged her finger. “Sex is a big no-no.” She stood and dabbed under her eyes. “My parents gave me that message loud and clear. Girls who have sex are floozies. Hussies.” She spat out the word.
Geoff stood. “Okay.” He steadied his hands on top of her shoulders. “Poppy, we can come up separately. Will that help?”
“You’re wonderful.” She circled her arms around his waist, and rested her head on his chest. “Most guys would be angry about this. They wouldn’t care what the girl wanted.” She sniffled, and wiped her cheek on her bicep.
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” He grinned. “Most guys would want the desk person to know he’s getting laid.”
She gurgled a laugh. “That’s why I cry—because you’re not like that. You don’t mind my prudish thoughts.”
“Besides, it doesn’t matter if the desk clerk knows.” He chuckled. “I know I’m getting laid.”
“Stoppppp! You know what I mean.” Poppy swatted her hand in the air.
“Yes, Honch. I know what you mean. I just want to see that beautiful smile, again.” He brushed his lips on her mouth. “Let’s go have that birthday dinner, okay?”
After dinner, a grinning Geoff went upstairs—first—as he’d promised. In her intrigued tourist role, Poppy stood in front of the brochure stand. She lifted a few flyers: Disney World, Cypress Gardens, and Rosie O’Grady’s Good Time Emporium. The desk clerk, his back to Poppy the entire time, never saw Geoff head upstairs.
With her back against the brass railing, Poppy faced the front desk and sidestepped up the stairs, her sandals hooked on her fingers. At their room, with one knuckle, she softly tapped on the door.
Geoff cracked the door open—only his mustache peeked out. “Who’s there?” He asked like the Big Bad Wolf.
Poppy pushed the door. “Stop it,” she giggled.
You made it!” Geoff threw his arms wide.
With her fingertips, Poppy quietly closed the door, and latched the chain. “Phew!” She breathed. “I don’t think the desk clerk saw me. I tiptoed up here.” She rolled her eyes, mocking herself.
Geoff slipped off his loafers and gently took Poppy’s hand. “Now, what about this king-size bed?” He pulled back the comforter and lowered her backwards. “This is the first time we get to share a real bed.”
“What if I can’t find you?” Poppy giggled.
“Don’t worry.” His fingers untied the top of her halter dress. “I’ll find you.”