Divorce Is in the Air
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We went to the spa to save what was left of our damned marriage.
With only that goal in mind, I climbed into the driver’s seat of the rented red Citroën, its gear stick so hard to handle it could have run us off the road any second, and I got down to negotiating the curvy road under the vigilant gaze of those medieval towns that in Catalonia sprout from the hills like giant stone mushrooms.
The mountains were gathered into soft crests, and the arid landscape sloped gently down into fields of rye and wheat. We drove along a road still slippery after a storm that had forced us to hole up for hours in a service station, where Helen’s parents had dropped two hundred euros on souvenirs.
The afternoon was warm, as if a touch of April had been mixed in with November, which for its part was still sloughing off poplar leaves into the rushing Corb River. It was oddly disheartening to watch the water’s muddy surface bucking like the back of a live animal as it flowed through the riverbed’s ravines and around its twists and turns. According to the map we were less than five kilometers away. As we rounded an unexpectedly wide bend that opened to our right, I could see Helen in the passenger-side mirror, chewing on the nail of her index finger, her blue gaze fixed on the cigarette she was holding out the window so the smoke wouldn’t annoy her father. The boy in the backseat chewing gum couldn’t hide the fact that, with the set of his cheeks and the generous cut of his lips, he was a more stylized and robust combination of the genes of Helen’s parents, who sat on either side of him. The highway narrowed into a road that dipped toward a wooded area, and I heard the luggage start bouncing in the trunk.
When the tortured river crossed the car’s path again, we drove over a bridge and came to the end of a ribbon of earthen road edged by tall, decorative trees that offered no shade. It led to the imposing manor house the local government had raised from ruin to turn the place into a health spa.
I parked on a stretch of gravel near a square swimming pool devoid of swimmers and a terrace with rustic tables and plastic chairs. I took my small suitcase from the trunk, and while Helen’s parents organized their sacks and bags, American items, and the knickknacks they’d bought as gifts, I looked out over the waves of grain that yellowed the mountains. In the distance I saw irrigation canals lined with sheds that might have housed animals. Before Helen — harassed by the boy and his curiosity — could start nagging me to help her with the giant suitcase she’d brought from Montana, I was startled by the movement of a toad bouncing in and out of the weeds, leaping like a viscous green heart. From every balcony hung a pot of pink dianthus.
We unloaded the car and I let Helen go ahead with her parents and the kid; I needed to stretch my legs before checking in. Here and there, pale patrons strolled. I noticed one jaunty figure in a robe, fanning itself; it greeted me by doffing its hat. The head was shaved but there was a dusting of fuzz, like mocha sprinkles clinging to the skull. The most exciting thing on the terrace was watching the treetops absorb the light, so I headed inside to have a look around.
Helen and family were waiting in line at the other end of a large hall decorated with chandeliers and shelves where porcelain jars were displayed: pennyroyal, verbena, sarsaparilla, and other herbs. I was greeted by an obese woman with a web of varicose veins that seemed to be barely holding the flesh of her shanks in place. When she flashed me a sexless smile I averted my eyes. My soul sank when I noticed the glass wall that gave onto the exercise room beyond: some old people were swimming, frog-like, and others were struggling to flap their arms to the rhythm set by an instructor.
I saw one woman with skin so covered in yellow spots she seemed to be rusting, and a guy so overexerting himself it looked like he was swelling with helium; at any moment his face could have burst. I couldn’t imagine why they would submit to those sadistic exercises, what kind of promises they’d been made. Were they hoping to strengthen their hearts, make their skin less parchment-like, unclog their intestines? After seventy years of wear and tear, wasn’t it enough that they were still standing?
I’d driven over two hours from the Claris hotel in a cramped car with barely enough room to change gears; my knees hurt and hunger was starting to gnaw. I surveyed the tables to see if they were serving snacks with the drinks, and it was then I saw a black boy of twelve or so swoop across the room like a breath of fresh air, zigzagging among the chairs, his arms stretched wide. I figured he’d left something in his room and had turned himself into a flying creature to go back and get it. I was happy for him: kids with imagination are never alone. What made me saddest for Helen’s kid was that, when it came to make-believe, his head was all dried up. He’d just sit there in the hotel rooms looking at me like an idiot. I know it wasn’t an easy situation, but I’m sure his father had introduced him to one or two substitute mothers back in Montana, and for a clever boy three days should be long enough to adapt and to stop being paralyzed every time he laid eyes on me. Anyway, I look more WASPy than any of those Midwestern farmers, so he should have felt right at home.
I searched for a black-skinned adult among the bathers emerging from the water, their hair in clumps like starfish hitched to their heads. Then I looked at the sedated mummies deliberating between ordering a cup of tea and tempting a heart attack, and I finally caught sight of a long finger, dark like damp velvet, hovering over one of the tables. In his yellow shirt the man looked like a spot of India ink in human form. He was focused on pouring milk into his tea, which he did so slowly it curdled into a milky brain that he dissolved with two stirs of the spoon. I like black people, and although I’d never actually met one before, my feelings toward them were warm. I love how flexible their bodies are, though I think it’s probably their skeletons that keep them from being good swimmers — too much cartilage. The one at the spa was an impressive specimen. From his trunk sprouted legs and arms so long it looked like he could kick or pick up any object in the room without even rising from his chair. I must have been standing there admiring him awhile, because when our gazes locked, the eyes floating in his sockets were hard.
I turned my head and saw
When I turned back, Helen was alone at the counter. I picked up her suitcase and let her go ahead with the key.
I love hotel rooms. They play such an important role in how a couple’s relationship develops: I adore those prologues and counterpoints to domestic sex, the injection of the clandestine. But I had spent the whole car trip feeling only apathy when I imagined the moment we’d be left alone in our room, and I didn’t know how my libido was going to respond after five months of separation. It seems supernatural, the way girls swell up and bulge out to become copies of their mothers. I’d spent the day with the flabby version of Helen’s pink and lively body, its soft, damp folds blurred in oily protuberances, and it hadn’t exactly been stimulating.
I got over that foolishness when I saw the way her shape (so full of vitality it always seemed the life would just come spilling out of her) climbed the stairs, managing to carry my small suitcase without losing the side-to-side sway of her hips. The whole time we’d been married that shimmy was all it took to make the voices in my head quit their absurd, disjointed chatter and join together in a chorus to demand a single thing: the very thing we were about to spend the next half hour doing.
Helen couldn’t get the door open so I unlocked it, glancing surreptitiously at the surely creaky bed. We left the suitcases on the floor. A joke of a desk, a full-length mirror, a window displaying vistas of fir trees, and a bathroom with a shower stall. Helen started doing Jovanotti-style calisthenics, and the sight of the translucent down sprouting under her arm had me poised and about to dive in, but right then the boy barged into the room blaring like a trumpet, and I plopped down into a chair instead. The kid should have been off playing in the corridor; indignation crept up from my belly.
“You’re sitting down? You’re not going to help me unpack?”
Despite the sharp edges of her shoddy Spanish, I knew she said it with the best ...