Table of Contents - Vol. VII, No. 2
Tanning booth #3 was open at the top and the sounds
from the cedar paneled massage room at the end of the hall flowed through
the gap like water breaching a dam. Whispers lapped at the edge of the
sun bed like an unwelcome tide. She had neglected to turn on the
ceiling fan before stepping into the shiny tube that resembled a small, but
stationary, rocket. That was why she could hear the slip-slide of skin
(hand?) on skin (shoulder?) or perhaps it was merely the sound of sandals on
the tile floor.
Dammit, this was supposed to be her time. Just hers and no one else’s.
She’d forgotten her I-Pod with its download of comfort music from her youth - Sting, The Eagles, Phil Collins. She’d remembered to zinc her nose and ears and nipples. She didn’t know what to do with the triangle below her throat that turned a darker brown because of her vee necked blouses. That triangle ruined the seamless look she wanted but push that thought away. Think sleek. Think smooth.
She shifted her weight, feeling her hipbones grind, and blew out her breath in an annoyed sigh. She hated listening to some stranger’s skin-on-skin massage when she could be listening to Enya’s “Sail away“ or humming along to the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.” She listened to those comfort songs over and over so James had gotten her the I-Pod because it drove him crazy to hear “Heartache Tonight” nine times in a row. He liked jazz and blues. He would listen to an album once then, wearing an enormously satisfied smile, put the CD away in its alphabetized place.
Her calves felt warm. And the backs of her knees. And her forehead. The green goggles would leave a pale impression but the Sun Spa was very particular about eyeball damage and the bronze young man at the front desk had even shown her horrible pictures when she protested wearing the skimpy shades. As if she cared whether she went blind or not.
She chewed her nicotine gum and felt her armpits begin to trickle. Moisture ran between her breasts and down her belly. God it was hot. A cigarette right now. Just half a one. Six or seven puffs. Or one long slow lingering drag. Push it away. She was through with smoking. Hadn’t touched one in eight months but who’s counting? Think of something beautiful. Think of snorkeling at Hana Bay.
“When I die, I want to be reincarnated as a tropical fish.” That’s what she told James and he had laughed. They wanted to go to Hawaii for their honeymoon but it was 1990 and the Middle East was heating up. James was headed for Kuwait so they went to the Seattle aquarium instead. She’d been enchanted by all the tropical fish flitting through the water like vibrant flowers and the sentence had burst from her like laughter or a cleansing gust of wind on a hot day. James had kissed her and promised they would go to Hawaii, together, when he came home.
She’d gotten pregnant before he shipped out and again when he came home and soon he was traveling for Boeing and she was raising kids and having parent-teacher conferences and cheering soccer teams. Time disappeared. It flat out disappeared into twenty years of humdrum marriage.
Warm water, she thought. To join the watery parade, away from the shadow of sharks, and slip into the safety of sea fronds. To eat and flip and flash. That’s what she wanted. That and the blessed silence of a mindless life. No worries. You came and you were gone. None of this agonizing what to do and how to make it all work. You lived. You died.
The scent of oil, coconut and lime, filled the booth. And the pattering slap of skin (fingers) against skin (legs?) pulled her from the tropical fantasy and back to tanning booth #3.
She shifted and turned her head so that one zinc-covered ear touched the top of the coffin. Not really a coffin but like a coffin with a lid that wouldn’t completely close.
Her shoulders were warm now, almost hot. The pale inner part of her thighs stuck together. Those soft thighs and her breasts were what James liked the best. Push that thought away. Think of blue sky and sandy beaches. Think of snorkel masks and flippers and bubbles rising to the surface of a broad, calm ocean - an ocean the color of sky. An ocean that went on and on forever.
Murmured conversation from the massage room dripped into the tanning booth. A sigh. A word. A groan. The silence between those human voices rang as clearly as rests in a musical score. She could almost see knuckles kneading well oiled buttocks or thick fingers working on the flesh of the belly and ending with a long, flat-handed swoop to the upper arms.
She felt like she was suffocating. Her breath was ragged and no matter how her thoughts skittered from one subject to another there was the inevitable sound of skin on skin. Push that thought away. Think of turquoise water foaming against volcanic rock. Think of a million grains of black sand. Of pink sand. Of blazing white sand.
Why had she thought an artificial tan was a good idea? She never like being confined. James was the one who wanted to be snug. Who like things nailed down and secured. She was the one who flung open the doors and blinds and windows. She went bareheaded and forgot to zip up her coat. She was in the Sun Spa but would have preferred to lay outside under brilliant sunshine and an eternally blue sky with puffs of dark clouds only at the very edges.
There wasn’t enough time for that. It was all too sudden. Unexpected. Frightening. Push that thought away. Think about the laughter of children playing in the sand. Yes. That was good. Think about children.
They weren’t quite children. Late teens. Scrambling to flee the nest and be on their own while taking everything for granted: Money for college. White teeth. Clothes and cars. They would be furious about a trip to Hawaii that didn’t include them.
“Screw them.” That’s what James said. James who never swore but his voice was fierce. His eyes were wet. “It will be our time.”
But the not-quite-adult-no-longer-children would be achingly beautiful in their swimsuits. They would splash in the water and pound gritty beach balls and lie in the sun for hours. In spite of the warnings of pre-mature aging. Of skin cancer. Push that thought away. Think sand castles. Think surf boarding. Think of swinging on a hammock, sipping a creamy pina colada.
There was a tightness in her throat and a stiffness in her face. A stinging down her shins and the bottoms of her feet began a vague kind of itching. There was a tenderness in her breast. An ache. Push that thought away. No aches. Not today. Today she would gather her thoughts and think of an exotic fin. She would imagine the weightlessness of flattened tails and glittery scales. She, too, would be weightless and far enough from the shore that the sea would be silent except for the sound of bubbles when she exhaled.
Then came a duet of groans. One was with effort and the other pleasure. That isn’t me, she thought. I am not groaning. She remembered the massage room. She had almost escaped the sticky sound of skin sliding again skin. It rippled the placid surface of her carefully constructed privacy like a cold wind skimming a mountain lake.
What were they doing? Didn’t they notice how they sounded? Didn’t they care what other people might think? She had paid good money to get this appointment. Had, in fact, paid double to be squeezed into this damn tanning bed and she felt suffocated by whatever the hell was going on in the massage room.
The table creaked. Why had she forgotten her headphones? She could be listening to Phil Collins or even Elton John. God in heaven, she could be listening to Bon Jovi or Lady GaGa or the Black Eyed Peas!
“Okay. Turn over.”
She shouldn’t have come today! It was stupid! Stupid vanity to waste money on a tan for a trip they couldn’t afford. Vanity to think a surgeon’s knife would cut cleanly into unblemished skin and, magically, find that BRCA1 and BRCA2 no longer dwelt there, below the surface. Push that thought away. Think warm. Think tropical fish in a coral infested bay. No. Not infested. Infested was wrong. Growing. Out of control. Like cancer.
“God, that’s good.”
They were at it again.
“Do you like that?”
“Oh, yes.” The last word was a whisper.
She should leave. She should open the lid of the tanning bed and leave. Tears stung her eyes. It was crazy to think she had any kind of control over what was happening. That’s what had gotten her into this Sun Spa to begin with. Driving down the street, on her way home from the oncologist, cursing James for not being there, and the Prius had pulled onto the Sun Spa asphalt parking lot almost as if she wasn’t the one turning the wheel.
The massage table in the cedar room creaked again, and again, and now she could hear them breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Then came the moist sound of skin (lips?) on skin (breast) or was it all in her head? Jumbled among flashing angel fish and clown fish and jewel cichlids was the cedar lined massage room also all in her head?
The table creaked on more time, there was the murmur of voices, the slap-slap of sandals and finally she, Janelle, was left blessedly alone.
At first she thought the drops on her cheeks were squiggles of sweat from the heat but when the sob rose from her throat she had to finally admit to the tears of fear and sorrow. It wasn’t worth it. This attention to detail. This trying to be of one piece as if woven whole cloth for the surgeon. Perhaps he could avoid cutting the darker triangle of her chest but he could not avoid both – both! - swelling breasts. The zincked nipples. The armpits trickling sweat. He would take it all and even that might not be enough.
Push that thought away. Think of parrot fish and discus fish and iridescent gobis. Think of grilled steak on the patio and the children laughing in the back yard. Think of James kissing her breasts one last time. Kissing them goodbye. Push that thought away. Think of snorkeling at Hana Bay. Think of fresh flower leis and don’t think that her time was about up.
The timer to the tanning bed whirred, clicked and stopped. It was, suddenly, entirely dark.
“When I die,” she said, “I want to come back as a tropical fish.”
She shrieked and hit her head trying to sit up. She felt a rough hand on her arm and struck out fiercely. Her fist hit a cheek and her foot jammed a stomach. She broke the thin plastic of the green goggles tearing them from her head and saw it was James, kneeling and gagging on the shiny tile.
The bronze young man at the front desk swaggered into the room. “What the hell is going on?”
“Dammit!” she screamed at James. “You were supposed to be there, with me, in the doctor’s office!”
“I work!” he yelled back. “Why couldn’t you schedule this for when I was home!”
“I did! You weren’t there!”
“The plane was late.” James was making the slow unwind from floor to table to wall. He wasn’t erect yet but he was trying. “I called your cell but you didn’t pick up. I thought you would reschedule or something.”
The young man from the reception desk shifted his gaze first to husband then to wife then back to husband. He chewed his gum viciously and waited.
Janelle’s arms were folded across her chest. Her chin was up. She was not going to cry. She wasn’t. “How did you find me?”
“Of course here! Where else would I mean?”
James leaned against the wall, fingertips lightly touching the red mark on his cheek. “I was on my way back from Dr. Karne’s and saw your car in the lot.”
She blotted the sweat from her face and arms. Her skin was red and blotchy. So much for golden tan, she thought. So much for calm and serene. “Did you talk to him?”
“The doctor. Did you talk to Dr. Karne?”
“The office was closed. The lights were off. Jesus, Janelle, what are you doing in a damn Sun Spa? Haven’t you thought about skin cancer?”
“I’m going to Hawaii,” she said. “I wanted to get a head start on the tan before, you know, before we came back and it all started.”
“I thought we were going after the surgery.”
“I thought we’d go before.”
“I wanted you to remember me when I was still beautiful.”
The room was as silent as her imaginary trip below the surface of turquoise water at Hana Bay. Quieter, even, because there were no bubbles of exhaled air flushing to the surface. No squeak of the table in the massage room. No pattering of skin-on-skin. No sound at all. Nothing.
The young man from reception looked at James and Janelle and then at the tile floor. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll be out front if you need me.” He was down the hall before Janelle could reach for the purple and red beach towel on the hook by the door.
“I want that damn stuff out of you.” James’ voice was harsh. “I want it gone. I want you with me for as long as possible. I don’t give a flying crap about what parts you do or don’t have. I want you.” His voice broke on the “you.”
“We’ve had twenty years,” Janelle said.
“Twenty years isn’t enough.”
They were both leaning against the wall only his arm was around her and her head was on his shoulder. “I want to have fun one last time,” she whispered.
“It won’t be the last time.”
“I want the children to come for the first week but just you and me for the second. I want to laugh until I cry. I want to learn the hula and go snorkeling every day and look at the stars every night and fall asleep in a hammock.”
“You’ll get a crick in your neck.”
She tried to jerk away but he held her tight - tighter - and suddenly he was crying, the broad shoulders heaving with silent sobs.
“Please,” she said. “Let me do this my way.”
“When we fly back, an hour from the time the plane touches down, you go into the hospital,” he said. “That very day.”
They walked out to the brightly lit parking lot together. The rain was warm, like Seattle rain often was. It dimpled the surface of the wide pools spread over the uneven asphalt. Neon signs of the strip mall across the street flashed and faded like an erratic rainbow. Almost like tropical fish darting here and there through the moist evening air. James’ silvery green Camry was snugged up against her red metallic Prius. Parked like she had, against the wall, she wouldn’t have been able to escape unless he moved his car.
“Tropical fish don’t have it so easy,” James said. “They get eaten and they have to battle for the same food plus it’s a big deal deciding who gets to, you know, swim over the roe.”
“You’ve been studying this?”
“I know you want this to be easy for the kids and me,” he said. “I know you don’t think they should feel sad. You don’t think that I’ve got the heart for the long haul. I love you. Don’t underestimate me.”
He gave her a quick hug and got into his car. He backed the sedan slowly out of the lot and waited at the entrance to Sun Spa, the idling car sending puffs of exhaust, like dark low lying clouds at the edge of the world. When she got into her own car, she tapped the horn lightly, the sharp yips sending a message of “I’m okay” and “you can leave now.” He didn’t ease into the traffic, though, until she, too, had backed away from the wall and the nose of the car was turned toward the entrance.
She had wanted to do this alone. Not because she was strong or out of an altruistic attempt to save her family the hard stuff - the stinking and puking and crying in the night. She had wanted to do this alone because she was weak. Because she didn’t have the will or strength to take care of anyone but herself.
Before Janelle eased into the swarm of traffic she thought of the Prius and Camry parked in the lot, in bright smears of reflected water, looking like two tropical fish snugged together for protection.
Hawaii waited. Warm water and two weeks of laughter. Love was the balmy pool, the protected cove, that would buoy her up. Like the tide, it would ebb on occasion only to gather momentum and rise higher and higher. Love would crash against the crags and cliffs of pain. It would wear down the rocky shore of her fear and tumble it into a golden sand.
It would hold her, gently or roughly, and it would bring her peace.
© Sue Pace