I worked in a hotel for five years. I still remember my orientation. The trainer told us that it was our job to make people forget that the pillows on which they rested their heads, or the cups that held their morning coffee had been used by hundreds of other people before them. Maybe even thousands.

One caked fork or a frayed bath towel could destroy the illusion and break the spell. Thus, the silver was always to be polished meticulously; the table linen needed to be crisp and unsullied.

It reminded me of the the similar spell that governs much of our lives. We forget how brief and temporary our tenancy is here. We can’t use or touch anything that doesn’t bear the unseen mark of those who came before; we can’t walk anywhere without treading on a world that millions of others once believed was their own.

And yet as soon as we arrive, we start to claim things: my cup, my pillow, my key to my room. Those who came before become a distant rumor. We grow restive if we’re reminded of them.

After the orientation, we took a tour of the hotel; and by the time I left, I knew I was going to love working there. It was, as the trainer unknowingly intimated, a world in itself.

Most of the workers had been there for many years, and within weeks, I had friends all over the building. I loved to sit in the kitchen late at night and talk to James, the erudite dishwasher, who had traveled all over the country with his blues band. I liked it when Maureen, the cranky chef who howled when she caught us filching a roll, let her guard down, and talked about the abusive boyfriend she couldn’t bring herself to leave.

Mark, one of the groundskeepers brought his border collie to work every day, and visiting Tilly became a pleasant part of the day’s routine. When one day, a heartbroken Mark showed up alone, we all mourned the loss of Tilly.

A trip to the laundry for linen was like traveling below the equator to a country where exotic languages were spoken, and the heat and humidity immediately induced torpor. Whenever I went there, I brought a few smuggled sodas. If I had time, I’d sit on a pile of clean linen and sip one with my co-workers south of the border.

For five years, I thought of the place as my hotel, just like the guests thought of the bed they had rented for only a night was theirs. I forgot the people who’d done my job before me, and those who would do it after I was gone.

Recently, I stopped in for a visit. The carpet was the same, the smell of the place–a mixture of chlorine and coffee– was the same, but when I ran up to the break room to see my old friends, it was filled with mostly unfamiliar faces.

“Can I help you?” a young woman asked, looking me up and down, and seeing an interloper.

How could I tell her that this was once my hotel, that she was drinking from my cup, and sitting on my chair? How could I tell her that she’d broken the spell by reminding me once again, that I’m just passing through?

© 2006 Patry Francis. Used by permission.