A friend calls the writer out of the blue on the darkest and coldest day of the year: Does she have any interest in a free junket to a fancy spa in Arizona? The friend hosts retreats there, and sometimes they bring artists down to demonstrate that they can do so, to give deep luxury a tang of the intellectual. But only for a weekend. Any longer would simply be disturbing, artists being notoriously unstable, slovenly at the table, gaping at celebrities who just want to pretend to be nobodies for a weekend.
No offense, the friend says.
None taken, the writer says. Yes, yes, there is great interest. She smiles into the phone, imagining Arizona sun baking her undercooked winter skin. Boston, with its mean early March glitter, the cold shadows, the insomnia, can stay where it is. The work that lies slack and boneless, barely twitching these dark months, won’t miss her. Nor will the apartment, which she came back to one afternoon in the fall to discover that it had been emptied of half the books and furniture, as well as the entire boyfriend. And the cat. She told her friends that she missed the books most, she almost convinced herself of this, but had begun to want to rub up against strangers in the elevator and was starting to suspect that her body disagreed.
Does it matter, her friend says delicately on the phone, that she’s being invited so late because a far more famous writer has double-booked herself?
It does not. She has the night to pack and wakes in the dark for the ride to the airport. Airports are the limbo of the contemporary: bland and safe and packed full of anxious souls ready to return to wherever their real life is.
On the plane, the child in the middle seat smells like pee and graham crackers. The girl slowly falls asleep and her head slides across the armrest and rests heavily on the writer’s bicep. A flare of anger, not for the child, the child is marvelous and can stay there as long as she needs, her hair is soft and her radiant warmth sates a hunger for touch, how lovely that children can just drop like stones into sleep. It’s such a struggle for her, an adult beset with anxiety. But also the girl’s trust in a perfect stranger feels like the one good thing in a world of bad news for weeks, months, years. No, the anger is for the father, who sees his daughter seeking comfort elsewhere and does not apologize, but in fact pretends to be blind to anything but his sports game, which he watches fixedly on the seatback monitor, even though it is a game that has been already played, months ago, and he surely knows the score, and there is nothing less important than already played games in this hot and dying world. The writer seethes. She is exhausted with seething.
Later, the father holds his spent plastic cup and snack waste straight out, taking up space in front of the writer that is not his own, blocking her Proust, while the flight attendant is still ten rows away with her trash bag, he shakes his hand impatiently, clearly believing that women in aisle seats are placed there by the gods of sport to hold his garbage until another woman comes along to whisk it away. My man, two can play the game of pretending not to see what they don’t want to see, the writer thinks, and tries to beam poisonous vibes in his direction. His arm is meaty, mottled. The skin has the sheen of a cooked sausage casing. The writer looks at his arm and wants to put her mouth on it and bite down until she draws blood, until she bites down to the bone. The flight attendant clocks the situation from two rows away, and it is no accident that she slows down and engages in banter with a man in a soldier’s uniform, leans her hip against the seat ahead of him and flirts down with her red lips. The man with the trash sure has stamina, the writer thinks, trying not to laugh, trying not to bite. His arm must be hurting, he has held it out for so long. This, too, is a game, even if it is a moral one. When the flight attendant at last comes near, she says in a sweet voice, looking him right in the eye, Trash, and she says it without a question mark.
Then when he turns back to the already played sports, she winks at the writer, complicit, and continues on.
In Tucson the heat is a wall too high to scale. Saguaros stretch across the beige hills, lifting the sun on their blunted arms. Things skitter in the dust. The van rides the swells of the hills into a trough, and at last in all the scrub and cactus here’s the spa, short and adobe and painted in calming colors of beige and muted orange and baby-chick yellow. At check-in, everyone’s teeth gleam whitely in the dim and the lobby smells of sweet sage and a man solemnly proffers a tray with fresh-squeezed guava-mango juice upon it.
The friend who issued the invitation sweeps through the lobby, looking bony and ecstatic, like a modern saint, or a rock star in her black leather pants. Her toenails have French polish on them. Her hair may actually be spun gold, it is not impossible, she has a great deal of family money and fits in here at this exquisite place. When she hugs, she hugs hard. This friend is a small boat on the huge waves of her own emotions, she is swept so high she is in the clouds, she is often so low that the bottom of the ocean is a foot away and heroic measures must be taken to keep her from reaching out to touch it. From the institutions where this friend sometimes has to go to recover there come to the writer’s mailbox the most beautiful letters in the most beautiful syntax, letters written like great starling clouds, so many words that they bend like a single mass into formations, shifting and rising in a roil and gathering into other formations. When each letter is finally braved and opened, the tight spidery cursive itself seems to tremble. When she is low, the friend’s face becomes the pale and stricken moon of a medieval Madonna. When she is high, as she seems now to be on her way up the wave, everything about her sharpens into a blade. At the moment, she glints with light.
Whoa, she says. You look totally freaking exhausted. Are you OK? Are you going to be OK? Of course you are, you’re here now, let us take care of you. Stinky, she says affectionately, after the squeeze and release. Go get yourself cleaned up.
The writer goes back out into the day and to her room, which has fifteen-foot ceilings and an indoor shower as well as an outdoor shower and its own hot tub facing the far, clear, rugged mountains. There is a silk eye mask on the nightstand and a calorie-free chocolate with lavender in it that’s so delicious it’s probably not made of wax. The catalog of daily activities lists things like sound healing, drum circles, lectures on ketosis and Ayurvedic oils, art classes where the bolder kind of creative person can paint a picture on a living horse. Abstract, not figurative, probably; the horse still has to breathe, and it must be hard to paint a plausible face upon a breathing thing.
And yet the shower is scouring, she can feel much of the Boston winter stripping off her skin, the taint of loneliness, some of the long nights she has spent awake. She smells, now, of desert sage, or so the soap bottle says. The bed is a perfect white bog that will suck a body down into sleep. The writer’s body is heavy, bones full of rock.
But no: There are things to do, and the struggle is real against the perfect duvet, the perfect sheets. She is gaspingly up and she’s through the door again.
The heat of afternoon strips the writer’s breath right out of her lungs.
Water is meant to be calming, and they have an artificial river running through the campus, but to any mind as outraged by climate change as hers, it is impossible to see the peace and tranquility in it, she sees only the way the desert’s heat and dryness peel the surface of the water up and away, hundreds of gallons evaporating every second, the astonishing waste of what is the most precious thing in this place, the astonishing arrogance. Perhaps it isn’t the water that is the calming thing, she thinks. Perhaps, to rich people, it is the waste itself that is calming.
Please, if you have to waste, waste your diamonds into the pockets of the world’s artists, all you sons and daughters of ease, she thinks with a flare of hatred.
And then, on second thought, she understands that this is what this junket kind of is.
Image © John Fowler
This is an excerpt from Junket, a short story by Lauren Groff, out with Scribd Originals.