Years ago, after the closing night of a play I was appearing in, I decided to drive to Los Angeles to see a college friend. I rented a car and took the scenic route south, driving along State Route 1, a highway that rims the Pacific coast. It was a long and thrilling day trip, driving around the scenic mountain curves, ragged rocks, and through stretches of redwood forests. By the time I reached Hearst Castle and finished a tour in the late afternoon, I knew I would not complete the journey to Los Angeles that day, and was recommended a hotel further south in Santa Maria.
It was an old, historic inn located inland on the hot, dry stretch of a valley at the base of the Sierra Madres. The interior of the hotel lobby and meeting areas were decorated as if it were a pub in the English countryside, with dark wood paneling, somber rugs, oversized chairs, stained-glass windows and brass chandeliers. The management of the hotel had decided to play up its celebrity prestige—guests used to stop here en route to Hearst Castle from Los Angeles—and silent film movie-star memorabilia decorated the walls and the guest rooms were named after many who had stayed at the hotel: Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow and Douglas Fairbanks.
My room on the second floor, however, had been named after a local politician, with a window that opened out onto an interior courtyard that was shared by several rooms. As I drew the curtains closed, I noticed that the window was unlocked, and I bolted and tested it to make sure it was secure.
After a long shower and a change of clothes, I was hungry and headed downstairs to the hotel’s restaurant, but a wedding reception was in progress in one of the banquet rooms, so I settled in at the bar where it was quieter, ordered a drink and something to eat. From where I was seated I could see the other end of the bar and, as the summer daylight stretched its last breath out, the details of one of the customers seated alone near the door became more distinct. He was tall and slender, probably in his late twenties, and he had a sleek, elegant look about him—slicked-back black hair, a light stubble of beard, a strong sloping nose with flaring nostrils, and a prominent chin, and he was wearing a white shirt open at the collar with an unraveled bowtie draped around his neck. Because of his attire, I took him to be part of the wedding party. I shifted and squirmed on my bar stool, hoping he might notice me, but he seemed distracted and vacuous, intent on downing his drink, and I lost sight of him when a gentleman sat beside me at the bar and began to complain about the noise of the piano in the other room.
An hour later I stumbled up to my room, slipped out of my clothes and into a T-shirt and sweatpants. I considered watching television for a while, but I couldn’t find the remote control, so I flipped off the light and pulled back the curtains to look out at the courtyard.
It was empty and unused. The moon was high and strong and it gave my room an eerie blue glow and I drew the curtains together so only a small ray of light came into the room.
I was in a deep sleep when the knock at the door woke me. As I groggily got out of bed, I thought it might be the guy from the bar, come knocking for some companionship instead of handing out more complaints.
I flipped on the light and opened the door but no one was there. I was confused, bewildered and disappointed, the brighter light of the hall was exasperating, and I tried to brush the annoying disturbance away as the immature hijinks of one of the wedding guests. But as I moved to close the door I felt something move through me that felt like an ice-cold wind. A chill ran up my spine and along my arms.
The door closed and I turned back to the room and flipped off the overhead light. The moonbeam fell across the carpet again. That was when I saw him. The slick, black-haired handsome man I had seen earlier at the bar. He was substantive and real and I could not figure out how he had made it around me and into the room without my noticing him. He stood visible in the ray of moonlight and looked as if he were posing for a photograph, his nostrils slightly aflare. As my eyes moved from the window back to the man he began to dematerialize, as if he were on an episode of Star Trek and Scotty was beaming him to another place.
My heart was racing and I sat on the edge of the bed to gather my wits. What would the front desk think of me if I called them and told them I had just seen a ghost? Instead of reporting the incident, I drank a glass of water, checked that the window was secure and the courtyard was still empty, then went back to bed.
I spent the remainder of the night restless, tossing, sweating, fighting an erection as if someone had curled around me, locked me into a hold, and was trying to alternately smother or arouse me. There was a digital clock beside the bed that I watched change minute by minute. Sometime in the early morning I drifted off to sleep, because when I woke the sunlight striped the floor as it split between the curtains.
I rolled over and noticed the curtains were moving. The window was unlocked and opened and a breeze was coming into the room. I sat up in bed and looked quickly around the room to see if anything was missing. Nothing seemed disturbed—my wallet was in place, the car keys were where I left them. But in the center of the floor, exactly where I had seen the apparition the night before and where the ray of sunlight now hit the carpet, was a shiny silver object. I got out of bed and picked it up. It was a ring. Silver with a flat top and an engraved insignia. The sizing was small—it would only fit on my pinky finger. I didn’t immediately associate the ring with the ghostly vision I had seen the night before. At the time I found it, I was more concerned that I might have been robbed while I slept.
I slipped the ring into a small, top pocket of my knapsack I rarely opened, intending to hand it over to the front-desk clerk when I checked out. But that good intention slipped by me because I quickly forgot about it.
The ring stayed in the top pocket of my knapsack for years, forgotten, snug in its upper berth, traveling with me to London, Zurich, Tokyo and other not-so-far-off destinations. I only discovered it again when my boyfriend Kurt and I were in Fort Lauderdale and I was emptying the knapsack so that I could use it to carry a towel to the beach. Kurt looked at the ring, smirked and said, “What Cracker Jack box did this come from?”
I explained how I came to find the ring. Kurt thought my ghost sighting was hogwash. Kurt was all numbers; he managed a brokerage office and was also something of an elitist snob, but he could accurately assess the financial value of any item and he dismissed the pinky ring as cold, cheap steel. We were in the last throes of our relationship and to annoy him, I slipped the ring on my small finger and wore it for a few days, until we returned to New York and I noticed the metal had made my skin turn a sickly greenish-black. I placed the ring in a small ceramic bowl in the bedroom of my Chelsea apartment where I kept a set of formal cufflinks and shirt studs and only discovered it again one night when I was dressing for a formal-attire Halloween dinner party. I slipped on the pinky ring and during cocktails that evening, I told a small group of men my story of finding it only after witnessing a ghost the night before.
A young man said, “You might be the last person to boast that he slept with Rudolph Valentino.”
I laughed and replied that that was highly unlikely, but he reached into his pocket and pulled out his cellphone and took a picture of my hand with the pinky ring. I had never associated my ghost and cheap treasure with a celebrity phantom, but the young man said that Valentino had often been a guest at Hearst Castle and my description of the ghost seemed to match the actor’s. I found this young man charming and throughout the evening, in the various positions we found ourselves, he asked me in his most delightful bedroom voice about the name of the inn, the room number I had stayed in, what time of year I was visiting and on and on.
A week or so later, the young man emailed me evidence of Rudolph Valentino wearing the ring in several movie stills and publicity photos. I downloaded the pictures to my computer and saw it was a perfect match to the pinky ring I had in my possession. The engraving was unmistakable. Valentino is wearing the ring in photos with actresses Gloria Swanson and Agnes Ayres, in a portrait with his dog and beside a camel on the set of The Son of the Sheik, his final film. Valentino died at the age of 31, roughly the same age as the ghostly man I had seen. And the legendary actor in the photos looks exactly like the phantom I had seen in the bar and in my hotel room. The young man who had helped me discover this was a blogger and he said he wanted to write about my night with the ghost of Valentino. He contacted the owner of the hotel where I had stayed years before and discovered that several other guests had reported seeing a ghost in the room I had stayed in and that Valentino had been a frequent visitor to the inn. The blog post about the gay man who had slept with the ghost of Valentino went viral. I was more famous than I could possibly imagine, though I gratefully remained unnamed in the post.
Flash forward a few more years to when a reality TV producer contacted the blogger about Valentino’s ghost and the blogger gave the producer my name as the source of the haunting. When the producer called, I told her there wasn’t much to say about the ghost. I saw him; he disappeared. I shivered and sweated through a night with an erection that would not end. I could not even admit if Valentino—or his ghost—was a good kisser.
But the producer pressed on and asked if I would consider loaning the ring to film an episode of the TV show. I told her I no longer had it. And that was true. One morning not long ago I noticed it was gone—it wasn’t in the ceramic bowl. I remember looking around to see if anything else was missing from my apartment, but nothing was. Since I had last seen the ring I had had many visitors to my apartment: boyfriends, tricks, dates, even a hustler or two. Now, discovering and wearing the ring seems like a feverish dream I might have made up in my youth, and I wonder if my night with Valentino was something I had cooked up just to get attention. Only I am not that sort of guy. Instead, I imagine another man wearing that ring now—someone handsome, sleek, elegant, then one morning finding the ring cheap and tawdry and tossing it away. Something for the next man to find.