Lil and I are paired together because of something we both lack. When it was announced that those of us going to the company conference would have to share rooms, somehow it just made sense that we, the two divorced women, would be placed together.
On the ride there I convince myself that we are like widows that form friendship out of a common sadness, except divorcees do not get the same pity or respect from other people as widows, and Lil wouldn’t consider us friends. This is only how I like to think of us, as a couple of unlucky-in-love pals. But I think that Lil doesn’t even seem to harbor that same brand of sadness that I do, and this occurs to me as I am watching her slurp down oysters at a bar near the shore.
“Your ex is in Clearwater?” She says. We talk about ex-husbands because that is all we have in common.
“What does he do?”
“He’s in realty.”
She doesn’t respond because she is eating. The way she eats oysters is unlike anything I have ever seen. She pours them into her mouth in a way I want to describe as sensual, but I would never use a word like that. They are clear and mucus-like. They slide down her throat between the sentences she speaks to me.
“I haven’t seen mine in two years,” she says. “Any kids?”
I shake my head. She can’t tell if I am sad about this or not and changes the subject.
“You know what? I’m glad we were running late.” That morning, I was all packed at my apartment at 7 a.m. I walked in circles around the living room, pulling back the curtain to check for her out the window every five minutes until she pulled up a little after 9. Because we arrived late, we missed the catered company dinner at the hotel, and Lil wanted seafood. I didn’t tell her I don’t like seafood. It seemed like something that would make me immediately boring to her. So I am sitting across from her and eating oily pasta and thinking about my ex-husband.
I bring the subject back, like a loose piece of skin I can’t help but pick at. “No, we didn’t have kids, but he has my dog.”
She does this dramatic gesture where she makes her eyes big and drops an oyster shell onto the table. “No!” She says.
“If I were you, I’d march on back there and take him!”
We go on laughing for a while. In Lil’s language ex-husbands are all the same person: he is some buffoon probably wearing a polo shirt with some nondescript office job, and he is a no-good-cheating-liar. This doesn’t describe mine, but when I’m talking to her I pretend that it does.
I drive back to the hotel because she had ordered a second and a third tropical drink, the kind with an umbrella in it. I think about if we teamed up like in some kind of buddy movie and went to rescue Rosco (my dog) from Tim (ex-husband). I imagine her busting through his front door and me yelling about how Rosco is my dog and I’m takin’ him back and there’s nothing you can do. And in between parts of my speech Lil would nod and say “Yeah!” or “Hell yeah!”, or “That’s right, you son-of-a-bitch!” And we would drive away in the convertible (we would, of course, rent a convertible) with Rosco in my lap and we’d be laughing so hard that we’d be sliding all over the highway, but we’d be safe, we’d all be safe and laughing.
Back at the hotel Lil takes a shower and I fiddle around with the TV. The hotel room is beach-themed. The bedspread has a print of pastel sea shells on it and there are framed photographs of fish on the walls. For some reason when I heard we would be sharing rooms I imagined the two of us sharing a bed, but obviously when I entered the room there were two queens, separated by a nightstand with two alarm clocks.
I am on the bed when a loud thump and a moan comes from the shower. Realizing she has been in the shower for a strange amount of time, I knock on the door and ask if she’s alright.
She mumbles that she feels sick and I ask if I can get her anything. She tells me to come in and I am suddenly terrified that I am going to see her naked.
“Ok. Ok, I’m coming in,” I say. I open the door and she is loosely wrapped in a white hotel robe, crouched on the tile between the tub and the toilet.
The room is steamed up from the shower and her face is red and beaded and she is hunched in a way that makes her look like she is melting.
“The oysters,” she says.
“Oh my god,” is all I can say. I get a little closer and pat her damp shoulder but I can’t tell if that’s the right thing to do or not. I get a dixie cup from the sink counter, fill it with water, and place it next to her. “Can I get you anything?”
“Oh my god I want to die.”
“I know,” I say instantly, then realize that is not the thing to say.
After a while of standing in the humid bathroom, which now smells like fruity shampoo and vomit, I help her move her shaking body to the bed. She asks me to grab her toiletry bag. I retrieve it from her suitcase on the floor. She is doing this thing where she is breathing so heavily that her robe is coming undone from her chest. I think that we will be closer friends after tonight, that there is something in seeing her like this that will make her forever loyal to me. She pulls a bottle of pills out of her bag and takes one, possibly several.
“I just want to sleep.” She is groaning on the bed, the one on the left. “Can you turn the light off?”
I do what she says even though it is only 10 and I am nowhere near tired. I lie in the bed to the right with all of my clothes on. I think about taking a shower, but I’m afraid the smell of the room will make me ill. I think about turning on the TV, but I don’t want to disturb her.
Instead I stay there very still there and think about disasters. I think how the sleeping pill combined with the food poisoning and the two umbrella drinks is going to cause her to vomit in her sleep. I am convinced she is going to choke and die and I will wake up to find her. What will her ex-husband think? What will my ex-husband think? Surely he will find out about it somehow. He’ll shake his head, he knows I always do the wrong thing.
After a while, I can tell she is asleep from the way she is breathing and I crawl in next to her under the papery hotel sheets. I am still and very quiet. I touch her shoulder, which feels like it’s burning. She is lying on her back. I nudge her to see if she wakes up. When she doesn’t, I try to shift her to her side. Eventually she groans and turns on her own, away from me. Time passes in the way that it can only pass when you should be sleeping but for some awful reason you aren’t.
I have never before in my life been responsible for someone else’s life. I have never been responsible in the way I am now. No one else has ever been alive because of me, not even my dog, not even my husband. We have no children. My husband never said the sort of things I wanted him to. Things they say in movies, things like “I would die without you”, “You are my life.” I mouth these words to myself, even though I know he would not die without me because he left my house one day and didn’t come back and I know very well he is alive because I look at his real estate listings online almost daily. In my dreams I am running through the houses. Charming two-story, great neighborhood, walking distance to family-friendly park. I am alone running through the halls and I can hear his voice describing them even though he isn’t there.
Lil is snoring. I think of the bile swirling in her stomach and I try to hold her still with my own stillness. I don’t even breathe. It only makes sense that this will make her better. It is this time of night when if you are awake that any kind of thinking makes sense. You can think logical connections between any two things and that connection is suddenly true. I would be awake in this special way, early in my marriage, early in the mornings. It would still be dark when I would turn over and try to speak to him. The way I thought was that this, this is the only way a person can really think and I need for him to be awake speaking to me now or he will never really know me. This is what I’ve always been trying to get to. This is a time for revelations, but not the kind that change everything.
Lil’s breathing is steady, she is breathing towards the door and I am breathing towards the back of her neck. We are both alive.
In the morning Lil and I still won’t be friends. I try to imagine that she won’t think it is odd that I am in her bed. I try to think of how I will remember this night but not in the way that I feel now. I imagine her smiling and thanking me in a way that will never happen. It’s not the morning yet. She moves in the dark, in her sleep, and I am on my back smiling upwards into all the points of the stucco ceiling.
The Awakenings Day Spa in the Randall Park Plaza
The third year in a row I bought the calendar with the dachshund photographs. The dachshunds wear hats, crowns, seasonal attire. They are reclining on striped towels on the beach in July, and in December they are wrapped in bows.
The year I didn’t have the dachshund calendar was the year my mother died, and I hate to jinx myself again.
The Dachshund calendar went on my desk where I filled out the squares with what I did that day. I did this in an effort to grasp time, because it seemed to be moving without me. With two dachshund calendars meticulously filled out in this way and a new, bare one in January, I felt it was time for a change.
I chose the grief support meeting that was on Tuesday nights because Tuesdays have always been a sacred day for me. My mother died on a Tuesday. I stayed inside all day Monday, went to work Tuesday, and then drove twenty-five minutes to the methodist church on the opposite side of town.
That first meeting, Rita sat in the fold out chair next to me. During the break in the middle of meeting the leader, a small woman with spiky hair and a flowing purple top encouraged us to chat with our neighbors. Rita had a paper plate of donut holes that she pulled out from under her chair. She said she had grabbed them from the snack table before the meeting started because they always go fast. I couldn’t help it, but I began sizing her up, imagining what the great loss was that brought her here. Then she began speaking of Frank, the husband, how he had been a talented masseuse and the owner of his own day spa. “You know, the Awakenings Day Spa in Randall Park Plaza? By the river?” He had built it from the ground up, a hardworking man and he came from a troubled background, a cruel mother, but he was a good man, a good man. Her eyes watered when she said this. She had powdered sugar from the donuts stuck to her brownish lipstick. But she seemed excited, like maybe she had never told this to someone. Many people in the past have felt comfortable projecting their personal tragedies onto me, I have always thought perhaps because I am so plain visually. In the church basement I appeared vague and nonthreatening in a beige cable-knit turtleneck.
Rita appeared as a fabulous widow. She wore smooth white pants and a chunky turquoise necklace. She wore her sunglasses inside, complaining about the LED lights in the basement. She told me every room in her house has a dimmer switch. She told me she lights therapeutic scented candles that Frank would order extra in bulk from the spa just for her. She goes through 2 a week, boxes and boxes of them in her garage.
It took several weeks of talking like this to realize that Frank was still alive. One day during coffee break she was telling another story about Frank and the spa and she said, “He still uses the logo I designed on the pens he hands out, you know.” She pulled a handful of purple pens printed with the word “AWAKENINGS” out of her designer bag.
She sensed my confusion and said to me, “You thought he was dead!” She laughed. “You’re not the first.”
“Who’s dead to you?”
“Then why are you here?” I asked.
“Divorce is like a death.” She patted my shoulder and smiled.
The person that I know I am would meet a woman like Rita and run the other way. But I was magnetized by the way she reasoned her way in and out of things. Everything she had ever done she had a justification for.
Later she told me that she had originally been going to the divorce support group that met in the same basement, only on Wednesdays. But her daughter’s indoor soccer practice was on Wednesdays, and she couldn’t see her daughter much on week nights, so she thought that the grief support meeting on Tuesday evenings would work out just fine.
“The crowd here is better anyways. Some of those- those women, they’re insufferable.”
I nodded in agreement because the way she talked, it made everything sound right.
And so we went from seeing each other only on Tuesdays to getting coffee on Mondays and having happy hour on Fridays.
I was still filling out the little squares on my calendar, my proof that I existed in the real world, but I had begun to look at it less and less. The years since my mother had died had gone fast. Fast because I never bothered to sit and think about anything. I went to work, I went home. The only time I could think was in the middle of the night. Because of this I rarely slept.
But now the days had become distinct. They peeled off, one after the other, slowly and languidly.
Time had only passed in this way for me a long time ago. There was the week i thought i was pregnant in college- that’s how time passed. The days waiting for a late period slow and anxious. I took obsessive attention to my body, minor aches and pains, I sat in a cold bathtub for hours. I drank vodka. It came eventually. When I told my roommate, she danced, that was how we felt, a good feeling that makes you dance. Nothing will change right now. Celebrating a new found nothingness. A vacancy.
After dinner one night, Rita interprets my dreams with a dream journal.
On the rare nights I sleep well enough to dream, the same on comes back to me. I am in a vast hotel suite, and the only way to describe it is wet. That thin dark green carpet turned mossy with standing water, the beige wallpaper is peeling off from the sweat, the scratchy comforter damp, the each nub of the popcorn ceiling holding a droplet of condensation.
Rita tells me grief weighs me down. We don’t really talk about grief because we both know it. We can feel it hang between us and we relish in the fact that we can tell the other feels the same way. Often we are quiet when we are together, or I am quiet and Rita is talking about clothes, or recipes from a magazine, or a friend from high school. I like to hear her talk. I think about the damp room.
It isn’t a bad feeling to be there. It is a wet feeling, that weight. Like a child getting caught in the rain under layers of sweatshirt and denim, the weight, the chill, the way it could make you want to fall asleep in the middle of the day. The way it stuck to your bones even after your mother put you in the bath and threw the dripping clothes in the dryer.
That’s how I came to explain it- dampness. Feverish, a disconnect between yourself and outside, eyes heavy, hair in disarray. It clings to you even when you are dry. It was this way for three years, and then it stopped.
Rita lets me sleep on her couch, and for the first time in years I sleep through the night.
For my birthday Rita writes me a gift card for a free massage because she still has the template for the gift cards on her computer and she says her husband will never know. She says I deserve a little relaxation and she also wants to know how things are looking around the spa. She asks me to watch out for him, to see if he is trying to pull anything with the young pretty masseuse-in-training. For a moment I feel like a spy, a good feeling.
I take off early from work for my appointment with Natalia, a masseuse who Rita is still friends with. However, when I arrive at the spa, feeling every bit like an agent undercover, the teenager working at the front desk tells me that Natalia is out sick. She walks into the back to get her boss.
Looks-wise, he is not what I had imagined he would be. A tall straight man with small hands coming out of a pilled sweater, soft and babyish from day after day of putting lotions on his hands and then putting his hands on strangers.
He tells me Natalia is sick, but that I really lucked out because he has an opening in his schedule. He tells me gift cards are only for level 1 skill appointments, and he is a level 5 skill. “So,” he chuckles, “you’re getting a damn good deal.”
He speaks to me in a low voice.
I begin to feel terrible. I begin to feel a deep hatred for him. His hands work into my bare back, under my shirt.
Half way through the appointment I realize I am crying. Frank isn’t saying anything, perhaps because he is used to people crying. Maybe massage is cathartic. Maybe I was finally feeling my grief that I had been putting off.
I run outside into the cold, feeling steam coming off of my body from the warmth of the spa.
I cry out to the parking lot, I cry on the way home. I cry on the phone to Rita, worried that she will be furious that I let her ex-husband put his hands on me even though he had no idea who I was. But she isn’t upset. She sounds excited. She tells me to drive on over.
When I get to her house she runs out to the garage and returns with a stack of boxes tall enough to cover her face. She looks like a cardboard robot. She says, women like you and me don’t catch a break. We need to relax.
She places the boxes on the carpet and we both get on our knees to see what is inside. One by one she pulls out the spa supplies- dozens of firming facial peels, gelatinous eye packs that you cool in the fridge, those foam fingers you stick between your toes to paint them, a tub of rough sugar and oil to rub up and down your calves.
She tells me she took them from the spa late one night in the midst of the divorce, when she still had a set of keys to the building. She says that he had taken so much from her that it felt good to take something from him, even though they were excess products from storage. He probably hadn’t noticed and if he had, it wasn’t worth an argument with Rita.
She takes out a white wine bottle from a cabinet under the sink, pouring it into polished glasses. She helps me apply a clay mask to shrink my pores. When we put the eye packs on we are quiet and we can’t even see each other but I know she is there. We laugh. I paint my toenails a bright melon.
I think about how beautiful we seem right now. I can see us from outside like I am peeking through the window at us, laughing on the couch. I wish that someone was filming us, so we could watch it back like our parents’ weddings on fuzzy video tapes, play it back to us: the laughter like pots and pans clanging, two women in a daze, celebrating the death of nothing and the way that the nights last and last.
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From Sarah at the Candle Store, Her Hair: “The rest of the day seemed unreal. Sarah wondered if anyone else noticed the change. The candle store appeared fake, like a set from a movie. But then there was this woman who came in with white hair dyed red and then faded to an odd bloody pink, buying a candle that smelled like blueberry cheesecake, holding it tight between pointed nails, trying to convince the staff that she found it on the sale rack. Sarah thought, nothing could be more real than this. She decided again that she was doing the right thing. But then, as she blew out one of the samples that was getting down to the last bits of pink wax, she thought, maybe not.”