“I can’t marry you.” It was the first thing Barrett said when I answered the phone.

“Excuse me?”

I could hear the tinkle of glasses, a women laughing, and the hum of voices in the background.

“I’m very sorry,” he said, “but I’ve found another woman.”

Again, I distinctly heard a woman’s laughter.

Our wedding was a few months away and as a wedding present, my friend Fancy offered to shoot my bridal portrait. The only catch was I had to come out to La Jolla. That meant I could stay at La Valencia, one of my favorite hotels in the world – a pink stucco, Spanish style hotel right on the water.  I didn’t need a lot of convincing and, as expected, neither did Barrett. He had friends in the area and said he’d make good use of the time catching up while I was got primped, poked, pulled, and prodded for Fancy’s artistic vision.

“That’s too bad,” I replied with a heavy sigh. “Because I’m just about to walk into the hotel and I desperately need a drink.”

“We’re in the bar now,” he said.” Join us and I’ll introduce you to my new girl.”

I’d dated Barrett for several years and was no stranger to his antics.  While I have a sense of humor that doesn’t always make you laugh, Barrett is witty, oddly eccentric, and either has people doubling over in laughter or wanting to punch him.

I wasn’t sure into which category I fell at the moment.

A bellman opened the door to the Whaling Bar – aptly named after the large mural over the bar depicting a whale hunt.  Since the 1950s, the bar had been a sanctuary for writers and artists like Gregory Peck and Greta Garbo, to name a few.

It was only 8 pm, but the place was already packed. My eyes scanned over the mahogany-wood-paneled booths, long bar, and past the uniformed staff buzzing from table to table. There stood Barrett, impeccably outfitted in his black tuxedo. He popped in complete contrast to the casualness of the other guests in the bar.

Barrett motioned for me to join him and the “other” woman.

I gave him a bemused half-smile.

“Why am I not surprised?” 

Yes, he was in fact with a woman. They sat at linen-covered table arranged with a long-stemmed rose. She was dressed in a deep crimson colored evening gown and wore jewels worth a king’s ransom.

Together, they flickered like bright lights, in complete contrast to the casualness of the other guests in the bar.

She also looked close to 90.

Barrett put his hand gently on her back as she rose to greet me.

“I’d like you to meet Ms. Jacobson,” Barrett proudly announced. “She’s from South Africa and lives in the hotel.”

I smiled. “Very nice to meet you. I hope he was not too much of a bother.”

“Oh no,” she beamed, in her rich South African accent. “He’s a fine young man and I’ve had a ball. He came in earlier this evening and found me having my afternoon cocktail. I kept staring at him because he looks so much like my recently deceased husband – when we were young of course.”

“He was one handsome man that Karl,” Barrett said.

“He was in fact!” she agreed before turning back to him. “Now you hush, I’m speaking with this lovely girl who is obviously too good for you.”

I smiled as she continued.

“We started talking and I told him about the resemblance and how much Karl and I used to love getting dressed up for dinner – even if no one else was. Before I knew it, this darling canceled his plans and asked me out for dinner – on the strict condition that we both put on our finest.”

She touched the shoulders of her evening gown. “You should have seen the look on Rey’s face when we walked through that door!”

“Rey is the bartender,” Barrett explained.

“Well, you look amazing,” I gushed. “How did you end up in the States?”

“Oh honey, after my husband died my son begged me to move Stateside. Wanted to put me into one of those retirement homes.”

Ms. Jacobson shook her head.

“I told him the only way I would move was if I could live at the La Valencia. And the only reason I said that was because I thought it would be next to impossible for them to take someone my age. But the hotel conceded. My son can be quite persuasive.”

“No, no,” Barrett interjected. “Tell her the truth!” He turned to me and continued. “After her second cocktail she confessed that she was simply tired of dancing and writing erotic poetry for South African periodicals.”

Ms. Jacobson laughed so hard I was afraid it might be her last night at the hotel. “Yes, it was all the hip gyrations that were killing me!”

Another hour later, I sat at the table while Barrett walked Ms. Jacobson to her room. I scanned the crowd, carefully considering those sitting by themselves – many of whom probably came to escape lonely, empty homes. The room buzzed with warmth as I slipped onto the stool next to an older gentlemen wearing an English flat cap.

“Is this seat taken?” I asked.

Because no matter how dark it might get, there are always flickers of light – if we just stop at the bar to meet them.

Barrett,

If we’re blessed to be around when we’re 90 and have the chance to meet for drinks at the La Valencia, I’ll wear a crimson colored evening gown. I won’t see your old man’s forehead gathered in wrinkles or mind that you’re so senile that you can’t remember my name.  You’ll always be that gorgeous, tall and lean, impeccably outfitted young man at the bar – the man that stole the heart of two women that day.

Love,

Natasha

 

Smells Like Butterscotch La Valencia