guest-edited by Jennine Capó Crucet
The moment that Marianne, no-last-name, the Grand Dame of Venus Day Spa & Bistro, laid her salve-softened 77 year old hands on her feet, Maya cringed inwardly. Her feet, accustomed to being bare unless absolutely necessary, were never going to respond to the kind of ministrations such hands could provide. This was followed by irritation: why did Marianne have to touch her feet in the first place? She had signed up for a spa facial, not a foot massage.
“This will create the right relaxation my dear, before we begin to work on your face,” Marianne said, reading her mind. Of course.
Her voice was deep, but not in the way cigarettes deepened voices. This was a spiritual deepening. She had probably been born with a happy American voice. And then, the discovery of yoga and meditation and ingredients with names like babassu and carnauba and murumuru butter—Maya had read them off the labels on the pots and portions in the waiting room—had probably hastened her ascension to the kind of Awareness that eluded Maya, and a corresponding descent to the pitch of her voice.
“Relax, dear,” Marianne said, her palms barely touching Maya’s ankles, soles, and each of her ten toes.
Maya tried, and within a surprisingly short time, her feet, which she had been holding steadfastly together, separated and fell willingly and comfortably apart onto the soft, rolled towel beneath them.
Still, that was just the feet. She wouldn’t have to apologize for her feet. She would make sure that she cleaned them up before she came for round two of her treatment. But what would she do about her face? Her face would betray her, this much was certain. And that made her feel bad. She felt bad in advance for whatever care Marianne had in store for her and it was quite clear that if Marianne had anything, it was a bottomless store of care.
It wasn’t that she was timid, no. In fact, she was an inveterate fixer: the kind who actually had a feasible solution, clearly delineated and publicly stated and not without a certain and often overpowering vehemence. If there was a problem she leaped to find solutions. Particularly for her family, but also friends and, in numerous columns appearing in local papers and online forums, for larger issues: the Palestinians, the Iraqis, Beirut, Benazir Bhutto, Bombay. These were reasons to be moved and moved she had been. So, no, she was not timid. But there was an oddly compulsive concern for the history of individual human beings, for lives lived, the “sorries,” as she liked to put it, privately, that filled her with disquiet. Which is why, today, as she lay supine on the raised bed, the salubrious overtones of quasi-Ayurvedhic greens about her, new-age music rising and falling somewhere off center, the lights dimmed and the air heavy with the perfume of wellbeing, she was wracked with guilt.
Two facts. One: Maya had bad skin. Two: Marianne was determined to fix it. Well, four facts: Maya brought tropical brown skin to the table and Marianne’s remedies were cooked up in laboratories. In other words the twain would meet but the peace process was doomed.
“Didn’t you say your mother was visiting?” Marianne murmured inverted over her face, eyes to lips, nose to nose, and smoothed a pale lilac colored salve over her face that instantly cooled her skin. It was almost calming.
“Yes, she’s here.”
“You must be happy to see her,” Marianne stated the assumed fact. Into the silence that followed she launched a different question. “How is she liking this cold weather?”
“It’s been difficult with her here,” Maya said. Was it because this was something she could offer Marianne who would find no refuge in her stubborn skin? Or was it the combination of substances, sounds, affects soaking into her body through her willing pores, those parted feet? “She is very unhappy and all she wants to talk about is the past and I feel that I’m trying to escape that, forget about it, the past, and just try to move on with my life. Be happy.”
Underneath her masses of jet-black hair, now being massaged, inexplicably, by Marianne, Maya wanted to cringe. How utterly American to make such revelations; with what ease she had unlocked the door and pushed those demons out like so many bad children being sent abroad for fresh air.
“I had a mother like that,” Marianne said, coming around the right side of her body, her fingers linking through Maya’s in what Maya at first assumed was a show of solidarity but then discovered was simply a continuation of the massage for which, again, she had not signed up. “My mother left me when she went off to work because she wanted fine things. Fine things. She wanted a lot of things and I was alone.”
Marianne’s face was old, but her skin was taut and clear, almost supple. She had bird marks around her eyes, and her lipstick made tracery paths away from her mouth as though they were emissaries. Still, she was clearly healthy. She kept a juicer in the salon and drank elixirs concocted of organic kale, beet greens, lettuce, carrots and apples. Her eight daughters and one son, who all worked at the salon or were in the process of fleeing or returning to it, thought it looked unappetizing, she had told Maya, as she discussed the importance of nutrition in skin care, but she persisted. Maya had commended her on her discipline and remarked about the quality of Marianne’s skin; both compliments were, clearly, welcome but not needed by the older woman to confirm her good sense and disposition towards the management of her inner health and outer appearance. Maya looked at Marianne full in the face for the first time now, caught between three conflicting emotions: her enjoyment of the kneading of her right hand, arm and shoulder, the sensation that the left side of her body was cold and neglected, and her relief that Marianne had actually heard what she had said. Her embarrassment over her strange outburst evaporated into the room.
“Where is she now?” Maya asked, a little less tentative.
“She is dead. She died eleven years ago. I looked after her till she died, but it was very hard for me. I resented having to do it. And I couldn’t tell her.”
“I wish I could tell my mother various things, things about the past, what happened to me, but I can’t. I spend so much time thinking about how to tell her and so most of the day I don’t talk to her at all. She thinks I’m not talking to her, but I am. Just in my head.”
“It was the same with me. I finally wrote her a letter,” Marianne said.
“I think of writing a letter.”
“I wrote her a letter and told her. You know what her response was? What do you expect me to do about it?”
Marianne blinked several times as she said that. She was still massaging Maya’s right arm. Despite the gravity of their respective almost-disclosures, Maya couldn’t help wondering if Marianne would forget her left side altogether or, if she did remember, if their conversation would by then still be serious enough to merit the same amount of time and intensity.
“What. Do. You. Expect. Me. To. Do. About. It. Can you imagine? From a mother? You know, I’ve raised my children differently. I always stayed home. We didn’t have much, my husband and I, but I always cooked at home, and the children have grown up close to us. None of them want to be far away from the family. They’re all here with me. My daughter, well she, she left for a little while to Portland, but then even that was too far, so she came back.”
Maya found an opening. “Maine’s a good place for a family,” she said, “Waterville, I mean. It’s a small town, and even though it doesn’t have lots of things…what I find about cities is that there is so much of everything and yet the people who live there, even us, when we lived in the city, we didn’t go to any of those things. And the restaurants, we couldn’t afford them! Here we have just that place, the Riverside Farm Market, and their food is delicious...” Maya trailed away, her thoughts on the low wood building sitting on the crest of a hill over the Kennebec River that wound itself between the pines like a misplaced woolen scarf. There she sat now, enjoying the air and, before her, on the table, a grilled salmon sandwich with organic spinach, roasted red peppers, and mozzarella on a crusty home-baked roll. What might she have afterward?
Marianne broke into this picture, standing beside Maya’s bliss-resistant body. “My children came back to me. I didn’t have that kind of feeling about my mother. I never wanted to go back. I finally decided that I needed to separate myself from that past. I looked after her until she died, because she had nowhere else to go, but that was it. My husband was good to me; if you have a good husband, then everything is different. He worked, I stayed home. Then, when the children were older I started the salon. They all work here now. My children all work here now.”
“I know,” Maya said. “They seem nice.”
“They wanted to be with us. They wanted to be with me. They came back. Except the one, and even she came back.”
“That’s good,” Maya said. “It must be good to have your children here with you.”
“You have to let it go.”
“Yes, I know,” Maya said.
“You just have to let it go. That past, it’s not you. It’s what happened and you just do what you must to leave it behind.”
Maya made a sound of assent, a sound like hmm, a contemplative concurrence on Marianne’s prescription for life. Marianne moved over to the other side and picked up Maya’s left arm. Her right now felt welded to the table in a contented torpor. She swiveled her head so she could see Marianne’s face again; the dried herbs and grain inside the pillow rustled and released a stronger scent. It was like having a conversation with dead plants and taped music, almost eerie except that it was so intensely gratifying. Marianne’s eyes remained on the limb she held, and there was no more conversation. After a length of time, neither too long nor too short so that Maya could not claim that she felt un-balanced on either side of her body, Marianne wiped her hands on the sheet under Maya. She spent the next several minutes applying a European mud masque to her face and neck. Maya opened her eyes. Marianne patted her arm, then drifted out of sight behind her head and returned, briefly, into her line of sight before disappearing again behind the cool, fragrant gauze pads that were placed over Maya’s eyes.
“How do you feel? Are you warm enough?” she asked.
“I’m going to leave you here for a while so that the mud has time to work, and then I’ll be back. Stay quiet, dear.”
It wasn’t as though she was going to rise off the bed, this seeming helipad of luxury upon which she had willingly cast herself and where she had received more than she had paid for or expected. Stay quiet, she repeated to herself, silently in her head, then whispered into the room. “Stay quiet, stay quiet, stay quiet.” They were well-balanced words, those two. A good beginning, the important combination of full and half vowels between, and the near repeat of the ending consonant. Together, they were up and down words, the way a child would use a paint brush to test colors on a piece of white paper, or draw child water, mostly blue.
Blue water surrounded her island home, though the rivers mostly ran grey and taupe with silt churned up by monsoon rains. Except when it flooded and then the water was caramel and she would imagine that they were depositing precious stones among the hovels that lined the banks. Yes, it had been important to imagine that, curdled into the cow dung, thick walls disintegrating under the silently rising water, there were uncut star rubies, peacock blue sapphires, creamy cat’s eyes, garnets. Hopeful things, a way out of misery for anybody who wished to look.
And she had looked, hadn’t she? Everytime she came home from school, she had dug in the sands. Dug and dug while her feet sank slowly into the muddied slope outside her home, dug until her arms were elbow-high in sludge, until she forgot what she was digging for and began to shape bowls and plates out of the earth, imagining that if she made enough, she could sell them outside the temple gates. Sell them and collect shiny silver coins to put into her clay till which was shaped like an elephant which she loved and which she would have to break when it was full, feeling the longing and the dread at the same time.
“My mother left me,” she said, aloud, although she was now alone. “She went to work as a housemaid for two years and when she came back we had enough money to move away from the riverbank. We moved to a real house with water bills and electricity bills and my sisters and I had to study even harder so we wouldn’t have to go back to our hut. We would only go farther from the river, from the possibility of precious discoveries. My husband came to our house as a border. He was studying rural sociology in Boston and I became his translator and then his wife. That’s how.”
She stopped. She didn’t know what more she could add to this tale and, having released it into the sweetly unctuous room, she wanted to take it all back. She lay there and pictured the story rewinding as she sucked the words into her mouth, back to her brain and from there to silence: “.how That’s. wife his then and translator his became I and Boston in sociology rural studying was He.” She couldn’t remember the precise sentences she had used before that one so she switched to pictures: a young American arriving at their house in khaki pants and cotton shirt and a backpack on his back; herself and her sister studying, staying up late, waking up early, being first in their respective classes; first in everything; moving to the new house with its three rooms, one for the family to sleep in, one for the cheap sitting room furniture her mother had bought, one for cooking and eating; the path to the new house as it was constructed, brick by brick; the road on top of the old hut; not first in everything; the hut itself, so worn and smooth and made fresh from scratch after each flood; the earth; the unfound jewels; the rising water; the brown; the blue…the blue, the blue, the blue wavy words. Quiet stay.
Marianne came in and peeled the towel from Maya’s eyes.
“Back in my country we only take Ayurvedhic medicines,” Maya told Marianne, calmly, keeping it simple, seeing that there was a way out for her, a way to take back the indiscreet revelations she had made earlier, to give something back to the old lady who had brought forth her memories. “We have herbs to heal all things. When someone is sick, they are told to eat certain combinations of vegetables. All the vegetables have medicinal properties.”
Marianne, her eyes closed, inhaled deeply beside her. The strength of her exhalation brought a slow, warm touch of air that fluttered about Maya’s face.
Marianne’s eyes shone with gratitude. “So lucky,” she said.
Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan born speaker, activist, and writer whose work has appeared internationally. She is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009) and On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf, 2013), both of which have been translated into multiple languages. She is the 2014 winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for American Fiction. She blogs for the Huffington Post on literature and politics.