Lauren K. Watel
The moment Alex landed with her husband Brooks in San Francisco, she knew the trip was a mistake, but how could they go back? Brooks’s mother and stepfather had planned and paid for the entire weekend, including meals. To distract them, however briefly, from the grief over Brooks’s brother. So they went through the motions: renting a car, navigating it through the city and over the bridge, past Oakland and Berkeley, windows open, sunroof open, Brooks in the passenger seat for once, staring into the wind. A lovely, breezy jaunt over the Casquinez Bridge and into wine country, or so said Brooks’s mother. When Alex pulled up to the bed-and-breakfast in Calistoga, she rolled up the windows and turned off the engine and the silence rolled in, rolled in like a tide, the car filling up with it, that suffocating silence, and Alex forced herself to open the door before it soaked them through.
Their room was low-ceilinged and angular, with floral wallpaper, floral curtains, framed floral prints and floral ceramic knickknacks. Stretching out beside Brooks on top of the floral comforter, Alex closed her eyes and tried to lie perfectly still.
“You awake?” Brooks whispered.
Was she? Alex hardly knew the answer.
When Brooks crept off to the bathroom to call his mother, Alex snuck a tranquilizer out of his suitcase and choked it down without water.
Brooks came back to the bed holding his phone at arm’s length, as if he were afraid it might explode. “Mom told me it’s raining there.” He said this and started to cry, a high-pitched keening Alex had come to dread.
“It’s okay,” she said, holding his hand. Soothingly, she hoped. She couldn’t let herself think about there, or the longing would start up, like an engine inside her for which she had no key.
“Conor.” Brooks wiped his eyes on the comforter. “He’ll be in the mud. His suit will get ruined. He loved that suit.”
“Don’t worry, the casket’s watertight,” Alex assured him. Was this a lie? Possibly, but it wasn’t the first.
The next morning, they skipped breakfast and drove into town for coffee. Brooks took one sip and threw the cup in the trash. Gazing blankly at shop windows, arms dangling at his sides, he wafted through the throngs of tourists like a ghost among the leisured. Alex gulped down a double espresso, which left her feeling jittery and insubstantial, as if she could vanish at will, but perhaps not reappear.
At the appointed hour they went for the spa treatment his mother had booked. A uniformed employee directed Brooks through a door marked “Men,” Alex through one marked “Women.” After changing into a white robe and turquoise sandals, Alex followed an attendant named Rosa down a long hallway and into a steamy chamber in the basement. Rosa helped Alex out of her robe, instructed her to shower, and led her to what looked like a cement trough filled with steaming mud. She told Alex to grip both sides of the trough and lie down. Without warning she began scooping the mud over Alex’s crotch, then her chest, her legs and arms and shoulders, her neck. “Hands in or out?” Rosa asked. “In,” Alex said. Rosa covered her hands. “On the face?” Rosa asked. Alex nodded. Rosa smeared Alex’s face, then left through a gray door, which softly clicked shut.
Alex inhaled, held her breath, counted to ten, exhaled. Sounds of dripping water and muted Spanish drifted through the room, hazy and distant as clouds, and grayish wet light seeped in through small, high windows. Large disks of moisture clung to the white wooden ceiling like translucent coins. The fan overhead was still, lights off. Gray mats covered the gray cement floor, the walls overlaid in white tiles the size of large drawer fronts. The turquoise sandals, tossed beside a coiled red hose, looked lost, or abandoned. Closing her eyes, Alex tried to lie perfectly still. She let herself sink into her body, the feeling of grounded suspension, the thick of it, the heat. Sweat seemed to ooze from the mud on her face, her heartbeat almost audible, and a pleasurable panic flooded over her, a cloying warmth, the same warmth she felt whenever she was alone with Conor; then a sense of disorientation, immobilization, as if a numbing heaviness were growing over her, the same heaviness she felt whenever she was alone with Brooks. Brooks and Conor, identical twins who somehow managed to seem nothing alike. Brooks solid, somber, slightly disapproving in the way of all the Hales, Brooks elegant and modest, his mouth tensed behind his surgeon’s mask, Brooks always on call, on top of things, on best behavior; Conor unapologetically lewd, preening and extravagant, Conor laughing his dangerous laugh, his public art performances on the news, Conor always in his cups, in his bespoke suit, in the ground, and now it really was too late, he was in too deep, as was she, too deep, too deep to move, too late to breathe, too late and too deep to choose, now the longing would never stop, and when she listened for her heartbeat, she heard only silence, which had swelled so far over her head that she couldn’t stop the thinking, stop the sinking and “It’s time,” Rosa said and started digging Alex out.
After a rinse, a mineral bath, steam, and soothing ambient music in the “relaxation room,” Alex found Brooks sipping cucumber water by the saltwater pool.
“Compulsory relaxation stresses me out,” he said, with an ironic eyebrow lift. For just a moment, he looked exactly like Conor.
Alex struggled not to cry, wiping her nose with her sleeve.
“What’s that?” Brooks pointed to a dark stain on her cuff.
“Mud,” she didn’t say.
Lauren K. Watel won the honorable mention in the Prairie Schooner 2021 Summer Essay Contest, and her essay will be published this summer. New work is also forthcoming in The Hudson Review, Literary Imagination, Sugar House Review and Birmingham Poetry Review. Her work recently appeared in Ploughshares, guest-edited by Ilya Kaminsky, World Literature Today and Five Points. Her poetry, fiction, essays and translations have been published in The Paris Review, The Nation, Narrative, Tin House, Antioch Review, The Massachusetts Review, Colorado Review, Poetry International and the Collected Poems of Marcel Proust, among others.