Underwater Mystery: The Last Swim

Beer, sweat and suntan lotion from the previous night’s revelry late in August of last year had left the pool water at the Highland Gardens murky, with an iridescent Goldschläger oil slick on the water’s surface. Cigarette butts were suspended like bits of fruit in a Jell-O mold. But this wasn’t going to keep Philip from going in. It was his last day in Los Angeles. In a few hours he’d be on a plane headed back to the Bronx. Summer vacation would be officially over. And turbid water or not, he was determined to take his last swim.

For the past three months, this had been part of Philip’s morning ritual: diving into the pool, then floating in the stillness of the morning, soaking up the view — the palm trees, the cherry-red bougainvillea and, high on a hill above, the iconic white letters of the Hollywood sign. He had never been west of Newark before.

Philip Grello Jr. had come to L.A. to spend time with his father. His parents had recently separated, and his old man, looking to escape his demons and mistakes, moved across the country into an old hotel off Sunset Boulevard. It wasn’t much to look at. It wasn’t the Chateau Marmont or the Beverly Wilshire, but it had the caché of being an infamous place, formerly the Landmark Hotel, where rock legends came to party and where a couple of them officially checked out, for good.

Philip’s vacation had been jam-packed with the usual shopping sprees, concerts, amusement parks and nearby getaways that belonged in a single parent’s arsenal of compensatory affection. But today, Philip didn’t want to watch his father fumble with everyday tasks, like laundry and cooking — things his dad had never done back home.

So he grabbed his towel and headed to the pool. In the blinding sunlight, he noticed a few bikini-clad teenage girls working on their hangovers and tans. Philip, 15, a socially awkward introvert who likes manga comics, listens to shoegazer music and always hides behind a curtain of tousled, Robert Smith–esque black hair, dove head first into the deep end to avoid the girls’ glances.

He opened his eyes to gauge his distance from the pool’s bottom as he arched his body back to the surface. He felt something. It had brushed against his stomach. From the top of the water, he looked down, but it was too cloudy to see anything. But there was something down there.

A sick feeling crept over him. There had been a party the night before. A few teenage kids, including those girls now soaking up the sun, had taken over the hotel room next door, and had spilled out onto the adjoining balcony. Philip had heard them flirting and laughing, and later, he’d heard the thunderous splashes as they’d begun jumping, with booze-soaked bravery, from the second-story railing into the pool below.

Philip was too scared to dive down again; instead, he calmly lifted himself out of the water and went to get his father.

“Someone’s playing a prank on you,” his father laughed, as he packed his suitcase. Philip pleaded for him to come to check it out anyway.

From the side of the pool, his father surveyed the shape. “It’s nothing, maybe someone’s clothes, or a towel or something,” he offered after a few seconds.

“Dive in with me,” Philip asked.

They dove down together, and eight feet below the water’s surface, in absolute silence, they discovered the lifeless body of a teenage boy, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts. He was about a year older than Philip, and had the same shock of black hair. He was crouched in the fetal position, face-down, his arms out in front of him, suspended inches above the pool floor.

Philip’s father motioned for Philip to take the boy’s arm and help him lift the body toward the surface. Philip didn’t want to touch it, and felt bad to think of this kid as an “it” at all. He saw that the boy’s eyes were open, but he tried not to look at his face. The arm was stiff and cold against his hands. As he and his father struggled to swim the body toward the air, it suddenly became buoyant and floated up on its own.

From above, the body’s emergence caused a ripple of screams and cries. The girls recognized him from the party the night before; they said his friends called him Shyboy.

Then a silence fell over the crowd, and for a moment all eyes stared at the bobbing corpse, surrounded by palm trees, cherry-red bougainvillea and the white letters of the Hollywood sign.

—Linda Immediato

Postscript: This summer, Philip Grello Jr. is spending his vacation at home with his mother, in the Bronx. His father moved to Brazil last fall, and the last Philip heard, his dad was heading to Italy for the summer. Shyboy’s death never made the news. The hotel’s general manager, Jim Baklayan, said, “We have no idea who this kid was. He wasn’t a guest of the hotel. Our pool gates were locked so we have no idea how he got in. Police ruled it an accidental drowning.”

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