Fiction • Eva Speer
“I didn’t bring anything with me,” she said, planting her feet near the sleek furniture at the entry. “And we’re not together.”
Her companion gathered an armload of white robes drifting across the desk inset with the spa’s logo, zuiver.
“So what, I can’t see you naked?”
He shifted the burden in his arms and squared to her.
She replaced the embossed folder detailing the spa’s amenities in four languages. Weigh. Delay, she thought.
The light in the space is oceanic, rippling. She imagines the floor yielding to her footsteps as if she were traversing the spongy pale mattress inside a giant oyster shell. A wide stairway leads past the reception desk to the saunas, and she hears music in the distance, unstable chords that embitter and sweeten. She would have taken many kinds of bets to seem open and adventurous. Still, she feels a little tricked. She had not thought he would challenge her, not with words exactly but with raised eyebrows and warm dog playfulness, to prove it.
He laughs with his head thrown back and garlands the air with his hands when he talks. He puts his feet up and reclines to full length on restaurant benches. His big demonstrative gestures seem to conduct barometric force, stirring eddies and whorls in the airflow and upsetting her by suggesting some ungovernable volatility. That rainy day in the café when he rose without a word from the bench and crawled over top of her, she quailed below him, wishing for a justification.
Consider, she thought. Her insides are grinding like too many dry things in a blender, and she keeps twisting and untwisting the extravagantly white towel. Well? She walked in with him, did she not? There: the smell of water. The chesty, expectant feeling of crossing thresholds of tiles and wet concrete or summer gateways of alder trees and warm stones heralding first the sound and then that lush, soaking smell. Yes. Get up these stairs, she thinks, and gracefully please. She is familiar with vulnerability, in concept. But right now she doesn’t think she is pulling it off. She blinks several times to glaze her eyes with a coat of bemusement and conceal the shiny bald terror. People do this? People do. Her American heart has slid from its place and assaults her chest cavity like an inmate crazed with blue sky and birdsong.
Minutes ago, they were having a get-to-know-you-better walk together through the forest. She shivered in the spring afternoon, aware that he is still working out whether he is in love with her. Their fingers interlaced from time to time, and they wandered from the path, where clumps of snowdrops pushed out of the dirt like baby teeth from loamy gums. Earlier in the flower shop on a mission from his mother, she watched the man. He had been supplied with a list from the deceased uncle’s favorite painting: korenbloem, ranunculus, delphinium. She passed under sprays of orchids and swiveled around potted ferns in the tiny shop steeping in the exhalations of tropical plants. She sought his gaze, but he was moiréd in green bramble and obscured by the drooping head of an enormous pink tulip.
On the forest path his glasses fogged in clouds of his own breath. There is something alluring about half expression. She loved the darkened face of the dental hygienist eclipsing the examination lights as she bent over her unevenly spaced adolescent teeth. A surgical mask covered her mouth, her clear blue eyes fringed in lashes clotted with mascara, and when she raised her eyebrows to inquire into the girl’s well-being it was as if she were communicating something vital and intimate. The hygienist’s deep black pupils glanced off of hers like comets.
The man suddenly seized her hand. They had emerged into a clearing that gave way to a well-maintained parking lot and a large, modern building. “Would you like to have an adventure?”She stood in her thick winter boots in a long, low-lit room containing two slim benches and wood-paneled closets, unsure what to do next. The man has already set his things on the bench. He jangles open the complicated locker and proceeds to strip. There are two older men at the other end of the room, brothers, balding and set heavily on deer-slender legs with the same steel wooly hair springing from their chests and backs. They chat softly in a language she does not understand.
She realizes with dopey relief that her panties match her bra. When she glances up he is standing by the open locker looking at her. There is nothing to be done. She stuffs the panties in the locker, steps into the robe and lets it shelter her.
Paco Van Der Bij stands naked in the shallow end of the outdoor pool absorbing the twilight. Rotating his wrists, he watches the dry, discolored skin on his arms making crepey designs over the turquoise veins and reflects that his body contains maybe fifty-nine percent water. Anyhow, a slightly lower percentage than the normal healthy human. His therapist held spa regimens as a panacea and maintained that exposure to warm water and minerals would diminish his pain. Taking the waters, Paco likes to call his weekly visits, in the manner of old-fashioned novels with pale, tubercular ladies draped in muslin in the manner of hotter-blooded females of classical Rome.
He eases himself into the corner of the pool and squares his belly to the right-angled line of the steps. It is a game he likes to play since developing the tumor in his stomach roughly the size and shape of a small television. Wonderful symmetry, he thinks, for a voluptuous old snake who never chewed the big chunks of life he set his jaws around. The tumor has grown preposterously square. He cannot even look down and see his own penis. Sinking to his chin, he feels his gut tugging joyously to the surface.
Paco scans the crowd for the girl. She is younger than Helene, twenty-five maybe. It is even possible that Helene has been here, though it has been many years since he last saw his daughter. He sold the glass studio to another artist and moved back when he got sick. Helene has married and gone to Germany or somewhere. Is she still beautiful? That had been his only meaningful gift to her.
He was determined not to stare but he cannot look away. It was as if she did not belong to anywhere. He watches her for a long time. She covers a deep purple bruise on her thigh. He felt something knot in the back of his throat, and a flat-handed blow of loneliness struck him in the chest. Has anyone ever lingered to study him until he turned a corner and disappeared?
Each spa day Paco sat in the warm water and tried to imbue it with love. He imagines discharging shining ripples to the far corners of the pool that could slake the poor souls desiccated by failure and pain and cause people to prickle with an indescribable sense of well-being.
When Helene turned eleven, and he stopped visiting altogether, Paco moved his glass workshop to Antwerp and promised himself that he would just let her be. His glassware was attracting attention but not for its beauty. His work was about mortality. He knew that beautiful things withstand time. If something is created specifically to be attractive, doesn’t that seduction secure survival and care? He made his glass impossibly fragile. Critics wrote that his work was a departure from the tradition of decorative arts in the Western canon. But Paco thought it was difficult to break with history if you don’t believe in it. History was mutable and distorted; people were ejected all the time, and life had given him permission to play with it.
For her tenth birthday Paco had wanted to give Helene something she would understand was a part of him. He chose a pair of Czech candlesticks made from milky turquoise glass that had belonged to his family. His mother had kept the candlesticks in the special cabinet with the cut-glass front. The cabinet was made of particleboard and the cheapest oak veneer, like all the furniture in their cheap apartment. Yet it contained real treasures, cups, coins, and figurines from places like Saxony and Prussia and Czechoslovakia that had been wiped off the map. There were no more such places. No more country, no more Prussians. Only things could be passed down to comfort the living.
Paco’s mother used to tell him the stories behind the objects when he agreed to help her fold clothes on the dining room table. The turquoise candlesticks were hand painted in a famous Czech workshop that sent crystal chandeliers to Saint Petersburg and Versailles. Paco’s babička swaddled the candlesticks in burlap on the eve of the Prague Spring. When they emerged from hibernation during the Velvet Revolution, babička, a government, and his entire way of life were gone.
Helene had slid a stack of magazines she had been clipping from her lap. She untied the ribbon and shyly thanked him, rolling the candlesticks between her hands as if waiting for the meaning to tumble out. She feels nothing, Paco thought. My God, she is beautiful.
Papa? she had said, I don’t always like glass stuff.
It’s okay, honey, he said, they just make me think of you.
She gave him a swift, stiff hug, concerned that she had made him feel sad. Helene’s mother was looking at him. He felt the hard vector of her gaze, slate-colored eyes that never quite settled or softened.
Gratitude, he tells the pool.
Love and appreciation, he tells the lime-studded water in the café.
Joy, Paco tells the cold showers.
He leads the way through the spa translating the names and functions of the saunas. She hears him but does not listen. It smells of damp forest, pine, cedar, and eucalyptus. Several round pools lie within rings of turquoise tile, and a glass window halves the pool. Outside, the bathers’ heads gleam dark and slick in the setting sun.
She scoops around in her brain for comparisons by which she might understand where she is and what is going on. She thinks of fanciful engravings depicting mythical pagan orgies, of Roman baths carved from pitted marble. Birthday parties with the neighbors at Roger’s Community Pool. In the tub with Janie, playing with the plastic Chevron Oil man and the bronze monkey figurine that sank to the bottom. The time a strange booklet came in the mail, and she opened it to pictures of women’s breasts.
She begins to cautiously look around. People seem unhurried and at ease. She thought public nudity was barbed with truculence, yet all the flesh here looks tender and undefended. Her companion is uncommonly tall. The wet hair on his chest and legs mats into a tapestry of downward points. His steam-reddened torso is rectangular and bovine. Beads of water collecting on his cheekbones make him look strained and muscular as if he has just chopped wood. But no one chops wood, that’s a bygone thing. The women, too, all look as if they have just stepped from some painting. You wonder if everything you see you have already seen somewhere else.
The two dark brothers occupy one semicircle as he lowers himself backward down the metal ladder into the steaming tub. This very likely means—let’s be honest—six eyeballs trained on her ass as she descends, oh dear, just do it. Seating herself, she sees a crooked figure rise from the corner of the pool. The old man swings his arms above his head, rotates his wrists several times, and then turns to the side. Something is wrong. There is a massive, blocky thing protruding from his belly.
The man carefully knots his robe and begins to make his way toward them. They watch as he reaches the ladder, sheds the robe, and turns around. Bracing himself, he grasps the metal rail in one withered hand, and the knuckles flex and tremble. He shifts his weight and lowers a foot searchingly toward the first rung. She pictures her grandfather shuffling from aluminum walker to armchair, the effort of each atrophied muscle to move the bones beneath the pastel rayon sweater, opalescent hairs shivering on the crown of his head, watery focus in his downcast eyes. The patience required to negotiate this small, harrowing distance. The old man hesitates just above the waterline. She fixes her gaze on him, no longer fearing transgression. Brave, she thinks. Her companion shifts, poised in case he falters. Slowly, the old man enters the water, deploying gentle ripples to the circumference of the tub. He announces himself with a lipless grin and sinks down to his earlobes.
Her companion floats in front of her, blocking out the others. In a whisper, he describes a spa ritual offered nightly in one of the saunas. Everyone sits naked in a dark room on cedar benches graduated from floor to ceiling. A small stove heats up basalt rocks, and the saunameester ladles water onto the rocks in order to raise the room temperature, creating steam, making you sweat a liter. She will do this three times in fifteen minutes.
At ten o’clock, twenty robed bathers stand in the moonlight outside the sauna drinking glasses of ice water. When the door opens a corridor of warm wind rushes out, and the people hang their robes and file in. She chooses a low bench and lays out her towel. How to arrange her legs? Not knees up. Hands flat under thighs, feet on the ground. She wonders how the others arrive at the postures they settle into.
In the low light she can make out only contours, a curve of breast or knee splayed in lotus position. The mass of his body weights the left side of her peripheral vision. They are all here together in the quiet dark. She thinks perhaps collective unconsciousness is real, myth and tragedy calcified into the substance of teeth and hair, filtering into the dirt and swirling through the rivers. There is something undone in audible breathing.
By the second rise, the aperture of her attention focuses to the task of inhaling. Burning air depresses her sternum. At the final rise, he looks at her over his shoulder and winks. His head is covered in the wet curls of a fever patient, his eyes a savage, childlike blue. She feels the imbalance between them equalize, or perhaps it never existed.
Floating on his back in the hot tub, Paco lets the bubbling tonic render his fused joints. His eyes swivel over the clear night sky. Stupid moon, damned love. Beauty would not save him this time.
It was irrational. He had embarked already disappointed on the quest for his cure. True, the photographs were gorgeous. But the books were self-published. A scientist set out to prove that water could be transformed. He captured vials of dirty water around the world. He wrote words on slips of paper, taped them to the bottles, and made photographs of the ice crystals from each sample. No one supported his conclusion that the structure of water could be influenced by conscious thought.
Paco tilted his drinking glass back and forth in the oncologist’s waiting room and watched the meniscus slide as ineluctably up one side as it dropped down the other. He studied the photographs as he had once studied the turquoise candlesticks in their glass case, following a filament as if by patient, cagey attention he could ensnare what time had claimed. The HAPPINESS ice crystal against its dark background flashed like a princess diamond on a cushion of black velvet. PEACE was as impossibly delicate as venetian lace, GRATITUDE a perfect hexagon. ANGER formed no crystals at all. HATE was jagged and misshapen. I WILL KILL YOU deformed YOU MAKE ME SICK.
It is nearly midnight, and few guests remain. He climbs out of the water and seats himself on the edge of the pool. The spa has taken on a still majesty, the illuminated round pools like oracles. He rests his hands atop his distended belly and gently adjusts to gravity.
Suddenly there she is, on her way to the changing rooms. He feels a surge of buoyancy at the sight of her, robed, pale hair glistening, a caryatid with no burdens to bear.
“Pardon me?” he says. “Pardon me, my dear.”
She leans toward him and smiles a little then turns and walks away.
Eva Speer received an MFA in painting from Indiana University. The story in this issue is her first publication.
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