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She had been seeing someone for nearly a year. A man, a movie exec, whom she’d met at a house she was showing. When he shook her hand the first time, his shirt sleeve pulled back to reveal a tattoo of a scorpion. He was older, but very attractive. Even at his age he was toned, leanly built, with only one small pocket of weight that gathered at his waist like a pregnancy. He had a regimen, a bracing shot of apple cider vinegar and raw garlic every morning. He had a wife. Everyone told Naomi, “He’s not going to leave her for you.” For Naomi, it was an irrelevancy. She wasn’t like other women. She didn’t demand fidelity. She was just trying to have a good time.
       Then one night after a party in Topanga, during which she had climbed atop her married man and ridden him like a belly dancer, she had gotten into her car and driven it off the road. It had rolled at least once, maybe more. It was hard to tell from the inside. When the car came to a stop she could still get out on her own and stand and remember her name and what year it was. Everyone kept telling her how lucky she was. Not even a scratch on her. For her emergency contact, she listed the married man. She had to stay at the hospital under observation for several hours. At one point he called Naomi to tell her that he knew it would be very hard on her but he would not be able to visit, or to take care of her, and please to never list him as her emergency contact again.
       After a week of silence, in which Naomi had puttered around her apartment and sent him angry text messages—things like I hate you and The thought of you makes me sick—he emailed to suggest she go somewhere to recuperate. The email included a list of wellness centers. They were all out of state. Pick one, it said. He probably hadn’t even typed that part himself, but dictated it to his assistant. Pick one, I will pay. Some of the places listed looked more like hotels. She chose the costliest one.
       The facility was called the SOVA Desert Wellness Center. It took a short flight and then an hour-long chartered drive to get there. The first two days Naomi spent going between her bed, the bathtub, and the sauna. She had her meals delivered in. You could order wine or the house-made tequila after 5PM, which, she noted, ran rather counter to the idea of wellness—but she wasn’t complaining. In the sauna she saw the other attendees, though she didn’t speak to them. Many were in their late thirties or forties, with the broadening and coarsening of flesh that happened with age—though not for her. In fact her mother had been rail-thin and soft-skinned until the moment of her death. These other women were friendly with each other; they chatted in the sauna as if it were a cafeteria; they sat thigh-to-thigh with each other, and laughed, their desperation pouring from them as visibly as their sweat.
       On the third day a staffer knocked on Naomi’s door. The staffer was young, wore the white linen scrubs worn by all employees.
       “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I was sent to take you to your consultation.”
       “I didn’t schedule that,” Naomi said.
       “The payer on your account said to discontinue room service until you completed a consultation,” the staffer said. To her credit, she looked embarrassed to be saying this.
       The payer on the account—the married man.
       “Fine,” Naomi said. “Give me a moment.”
       She closed the door and quickly dressed, swapping her shirt for one that was suitably unrumpled. Her hair was unwashed and stuck flatly to her head. She probably smelled. She wondered if the staffers had been monitoring her, how much they had told him. She felt she hated him. At the same time she wished he were here with her. She knew he would think all the same things about this place that she did. He would dislike all the same things.

The woman who did Naomi’s consultation was named Florence. She was in her fifties, English, and her hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes were all the same shade of pale orange. She also had a cramped build, like as a child she had suffered from malnourishment. She had Naomi sit in a chair across from her. It felt like a therapy office, only decorated in Tibetan bric-a-brac. Florence sat with her hands folded in her lap.
       “Why are you here?” Florence asked.
       “I was in a car accident,” Naomi said.
       “Yikes, awful,” Florence said. She had rabbity, overlapping teeth, but there was a very soothing quality to her voice.
       “And what do you hope to achieve?” Florence asked.
       Naomi didn’t respond. She was taking a mental list of things to tell the married man. Florence repeated the question.
       “With all due respect, I’m not here to be healed,” Naomi said.
       Florence blinked at her. “Do you feel any malaise? Aching in the joints? Mental fog? Nausea?”
       “I feel fine,” Naomi said.
       Florence went to her desk and rummaged. She pulled out four metal pads, smallish and square, and a Polaroid camera.
       “Please remove your shoes,” she told Naomi.
       She put two of the pads under Naomi’s bare feet. The other two went on the chair’s arms, and she instructed Naomi to place her palms flat on the metal. The pads were cold and stank of iron. Florence photographed Naomi and then collected everything again and put it away.
       “That’s a lovely necklace,” Florence said.
       “Thank you,” Naomi said, touching it. It was a diamond pendant—a gift from the married man.
       Florence returned to her chair and asked Naomi a series of questions. How much Naomi ate, and when, and what foods; how often she exercised; how often she orgasmed. Had Naomi ever meditated. Did she drink tap water, or filtered? Did she drink alcohol? How often? All of this went on a form she had clipped to a clipboard.
       “Are you married?” Florence asked.
       “No,” Naomi said.
       “Are you in a relationship?”
       “And how is it?”
       “Great,” Naomi said.
       Florence jotted this down. Naomi wondered if the form would be sent to the married man, too.
       “What is the point of all this?” she asked.
       “I am establishing a baseline,” Florence said, not looking up as she wrote.
       “And the photo?”
       Florence handed it to her. Something was wrong with the development. Naomi could see herself, seated in the chair, her outlines and some of her face. But most of the photo was obscured by color. It was like she was behind a cloudy window. The color was a mottled blue-grey. It was heaviest over her chest and face but extended around her head.
       “That’s your aura,” Florence said. She indicated with her pen. “This concentration, here and here, shows injury to the digestive systems. The large intestine and the mind are linked. Which makes sense, right? Because they’re both full of crap!”
       Naomi handed the photo back. “I feel completely fine,” she said.
       “I know you do, love,” Florence said.
       She had finished writing, and she licked her thumb and scooted a page free of the clipboard, which she handed to Naomi. On it was a meal plan and a schedule of seminars for Naomi to attend.
       “Thank you,” Naomi said.
       She left the office and returned to her room. She drew a bath. She telephoned the front desk.
       “I’d like a steak,” she said.
       “We don’t serve red meat here,” the staffer replied.
       “Okay. So how can I get one?”
       “You’d have to leave the facility.” He seemed confused by the question.
       She hung up. She soaked in the bath, and wondered what the married man was doing. She called him next.
       “I hear you’ve been spying on me,” she said.
       “How is it there?” he asked.
       “I want to come home,” Naomi said.
       “You should give it a chance. They have very good reviews. Did you have your consultation?”
       “Yes I did, you fascist,” she said.
       “What are you doing now?”
       “I’m in the bath. Do you want to see?”
       “I can’t,” he said. “I’m with some people.” She thought she heard a woman’s laughter in the background.
       “Please, give it a real try,” he said.
       She wanted to scream into the phone, but instead she hung up.

Naomi didn’t like self-improvement; she didn’t believe in it. It was a racket sold to those who were too stupid or desperate to accept their lot in life. She had had conversations with the married man about this. In her circle there were a great many couples who reeked of desperation. She had stopped inviting them over for this reason. People couldn’t just be in a space. Once Naomi had liked to throw parties. But she got tired of people staying over-long and touching her things and eating all her food. They chased Naomi from room to room, to tell her about some vacation they’d gone on, some property they were thinking of buying, the minutiae of their lives; or to pepper her with compliments, to tell her, basically, things she already knew. She always spent the day after bed-ridden with a migraine. After her last party, while she was laid up, the married man had come over with a joint and they smoked it together.
       “I get so tired of affirming people,” she said.
       “It’s the only charity work you do,” he said.
       “It is, it’s charity. I don’t want to do it anymore,” she said.
       “Okay,” he said.
       “I mean it. You’re the only one I want to affirm.”
       “Fine by me,” he said.

The seminar Naomi attended was called Unlocking Desire. The instructor began by having everyone write down their deepest wants and desires on a slip of paper. I want a steak, Naomi wrote. Then she looked around. The women around her were really taking their time. They wrote and wrote. What could they possibly be writing? It was greedy, to write that many things. One woman was so skinny that Naomi could see her teeth through her upper lip. It was exhausting just to look at her.
       Then the instructor collected the slips of paper and read them out loud. Most of the women had written similar things. They wanted to be happy, to be healthy. They wanted their children to be healthy. They wanted to lose five to ten pounds. They wanted to feel less tired. They wanted to be loved. The result of hearing so much sameness read aloud was that the women laughed and wiped small tears from their eyes. Naomi wanted to know what the skinny woman had written but all of the slips were anonymous. When the instructor read Naomi’s, she laughed.
       “I think we all want a steak, every once and a while,” the instructor said.
       She had tried, she really had. But she wasn’t like these women. She didn’t want anything except to not be here.
       After the seminar, she went to the sauna. One of the women from the seminar was also there, and she sat next to Naomi and began talking to her.
       “That was wild, huh?” she said.
       Naomi closed her eyes. “It was something.”
       “I come here once a year but every time it’s like a revelation,” she said.
       “Are you ill?” Naomi asked.
       “Not physically,” the woman said.
       “What does that mean?”
       The woman didn’t answer. Perhaps she hadn’t heard.
       “Why are you here?” the woman asked. “If that’s not too personal.”
       “Florence says I have a bad digestion,” Naomi said.
       “I met with Florence too, she’s fabulous. She knows her stuff back to front. I feel ten years younger and it’s only been four days.”
       “Did she photograph your aura?” Naomi asked.
       “Yes, isn’t it wild?”
       “What color was yours?”
       “Pink and little red. I had some red over my right shoulder. Also some orange. It looked like a sunset,” she said. She leaned over for the pitcher of water on the floor. “Hey, do you mind if I add more steam?”
       The next thing Naomi knew she was lying on the floor outside, and there were several staffers kneeling over her, fanning her and dabbing her with a cloth.
       “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” a man said. He was pinching her wrist, to check her pulse, she supposed.
       “What’s going on?”
       “You passed out. Dehydration.”
       “You can’t spend so much time in the sauna,” a staffer scolded her. “No more than forty-five minutes a day. Do you have a heart condition?”
       When she got back to her room, she texted the married man. Please, I miss you. She waited for him to respond. She felt very sick. The staffers had given her a whole jug of water to drink and she drank all of it, until her stomach felt uncomfortably full.
       She waited two hours, until she didn’t feel so dizzy. Then she called a cab.

After her crash, after the car had come to a stop, several people pulled over to help. The first was a man who appeared at her window. She didn’t remember what he looked like now, but he had been wearing a baseball cap.
       “Wait—don’t move yet. Does anything hurt?” he asked.
       He kept asking her for her name, and what day it was. Slowly she got out of the car. There was broken glass everywhere. The man had her sit by the side of the road. Another woman was there, and she said, “Is there anyone I can call?”
       It had been hard to think straight.
       “Don’t move your neck,” the man said. “Do you know who the president is?”
       When the woman called for the ambulance, she walked a little ways away, but Naomi could hear her.
       “There’s been an accident. A car went off the road. Yes. Yes, we think she’s fine. She’s talking and walking. She’s alone. We were in the car behind her.”
       It was like she was sitting 100 feet above herself. The sun was starting to come up. Other cars went past, but slowly.
       The man touched her shoulder. “Do your teeth hurt? Did you break any teeth?”

The nearest town was ten miles, it was a small desert town and when she told the driver to take her to a bar he took her to a strip mall. The bar was between an Applebee’s and a Barnes & Noble.
       “This is it?” she asked.
       “The other one is dangerous,” he said, shrugging.
       Naomi thought for a second. “Take me to the other one,” she said.
       The other bar was next to nothing, except a chain-linked lot with brown, dead grass. It was called The Watering Hole. In the window was a neon sign of an open mouth with its tongue out, and neon drops of drool dripped from the tongue.
       “The name is a double entendray,” explained the driver.
       “If I pay you a hundred dollars, will you wait outside until I’m ready to leave?” she asked.
       The inside was dark and dusty and loud, an immediate comfort. She sat and ordered a beer. Everyone else there was male, except for one young woman who was pudgy and wearing a denim vest.
       She drank one beer and then ordered another. Nobody tried to talk to her too much. She looked out of place, and also when someone spoke to her she stared straight ahead and pretended she hadn’t heard. At one point the woman in the vest came over, and touched the ends of her hair.
       “You’re very beautiful,” she said like an apology.
       The men by the pool table were watching. Perhaps they had sent the woman over. Naomi felt bad for the pudgy woman, but she hadn’t come here to feel bad for anyone but herself. She drained her glass and went to the bathroom. SUPER SLUT!!! someone had scratched into the mirror. Naomi put her face very close to the mirror. She thought she could see the hazy blue-grey of her aura. This was a bad sign.
       She went outside and got back into the car with the driver.
       “That’s it?” he said.
       The car sped back through the desert, darkened shapes appearing in the distance. She felt woozy. She needed to eat something with salt, probably. The driver was looking at her in the rear view mirror.
       “Are you okay?” he asked.
       “I’m just drunk. What, am I the first drunk person you’ve ever seen?”
       When they arrived back to the facility, the gates were closed.
       “I think if you ring the door, they’ll let you in,” the driver said. He came around to help her out of the backseat. When she went to pay him, she realized all her cash was gone.
       “Oh no,” she said. “I think I was robbed.”
       “Are you kidding me?” the driver said.
       “No, I’m not,” she said, and she showed him her empty wallet.
       He put his hand to his forehead. “Lady, I’ve been driving you around all night. And now you’re not going to pay me? What about the hundred dollars you promised?”
       She didn’t know what to do. He asked if there was an ATM inside. She didn’t know. Also now she had to throw up. She staggered a few steps away and hurled into an agave.
       She could hear the driver deliberating with himself. The car was still running, and it dinged and dinged. He walked over to her.
       “It matters if I don’t get paid,” he was telling her. “I have two kids with one wife and three more with an ex. I need this money. I have a medical condition. Are you listening? Are you listening, you bitch?”
       He grabbed her shoulders and shook her. Her hair dragged in the dirt.
       “Here,” she said, and she took off her necklace.
       “Are you fucking kidding me?” the driver said.
       “I don’t know what else to give you,” she said.
       He took the necklace from her, though, and rubbed the diamond between his fingers. He didn’t say anything else, just got back into his car and drove away. Then she was alone and groping her way along the fence so she wouldn’t fall down. After he left, she realized she could have just as easily given him her cell phone.
       She buzzed and buzzed at the gate. Someone came and fetched her. It had been maybe minutes, maybe half an hour. It was hard to tell. Somewhere, very far, she heard the screeching of some wild animal. A rabbit, or a fox.

The next day, Naomi woke and tried to call for room service. But the phone wasn’t working. When she picked it up, there was no sound.
       Fuckers, she thought. Tenderly, she dressed herself and went to the cafeteria, where a Mexican woman in a hairnet served her some gloppy eggs.
       “This is not elimination diet,” she told Naomi.
       “What does that mean?” Naomi asked.
       The woman shrugged. “I don’t know. I just have to tell people.”
       She chose one of the tables at random and sat. Every few feet along the table there were shakers of Himalayan pink salt, shakers of turmeric, and pots of maple syrup. Naomi drizzled syrup over her eggs. Some women down the table from her looked over.
       “Are you okay?” one asked.
       “Darling, you look dried up,” another said.
       It didn’t seem to matter to them that they were being very rude. After a moment they turned away and kept talking.
       “What does SOVA stand for, again?”
       “I think it’s locational. South of—something. Like SoHo, you know.”
       “Or maybe it’s an acronym.”
       “I think it stands for ‘Share Our Varied Awarenesses.’”
       “No, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just letters, like S.O.S.” 
       When Naomi got back to her room, the same staffer from the day before was waiting for her.
       “Florence would like to see you,” she said.
       They went back down the hall, back in the elevator, to Florence’s office with the prayer flags drooping from the doorway. Naomi lowered herself slowly onto the couch.
       “We’ve had a rough night, haven’t we,” Florence said.
       Naomi didn’t say anything.
       “I feel you’re not taking this seriously,” Florence said. “Wellness is not just a set of strictures, or diets. It’s about reclaiming the body. Did you know that until 1800, all medical models were based on the male anatomy? Think of that. Think of trying to treat an ectopic pregnancy when you’ve no idea what a uterus even looks like!”
       “I’m sorry, but this doesn’t matter to me,” Naomi said.
       “Well just because you don’t care doesn’t mean it can’t help,” Florence said.
       There was nothing she could argue with there. It was a perfect semantic loop. Instead, she asked, “Did you switch off my phone?”
       “No,” Florence said.
       “The line was dead,” Naomi said.
       Florence looked at her coolly for a few moments. “We don’t do anything with the phones.”
       Then she asked the staffer, who remained in the doorway, to please stay.
       To Naomi, she said, “Have you ever heard of sympathetic touch? It is a way of healing through the laying on of hands. Almost every culture has a form of it. It’s very ancient.”
       “I haven’t heard of it,” Naomi said.
       “Some people believe an energy can be passed between bodies this way. I’m a bit more bookish in my advocacy. The simple fact is that sympathetic touch stimulates the vagus nerve, which in turn interfaces with the heart, the lungs, and the digestion. Do you understand? This is the nerve that initiates the fight or flight impulse. I’d like to show you something. Please lie down.”
       At Florence’s direction, Naomi lay on the floor on her stomach. The woven carpet there pressed itchily into her cheek. She tried to empty her thoughts as Florence said, but a mounting litany of resentments came to mind. She hated this place. She hated the women at the breakfast table and in the seminar and the seminar leader. Also she hated the pudgy woman in the bar and she hated the cab driver who had shaken her like a bad dog. Certainly she hated Florence. Two pairs of hands pressed with authority onto her shoulder blades. Naomi felt from them only a desperation to fix, like she was no more than a crooked tooth that needed straightening. What arrogance. Even the doctors after her crash had only said, “We’ll just wait and see. Sometimes it takes a while to start feeling your injuries.” She’d been alone, and when they left the room she’d had to turn on the TV to have some company.
       The minutes ticked past. She felt nothing. This entire week had been like this: a disappointment. Perhaps this whole year. Or longer. She began to cry. She was like an enormous cyst weeping its fluids—something in her was deflating, loosening, easing. Her tears ran into the carpet nubs.
       “All I wanted was to have a good time,” Naomi said.
       The hands lifted, a caesura.
       “So start already,” Florence said.

Before returning to her room, Naomi went down to the check-in desk. In the room where it was, the atrium, the windows were full length and all around you could see the desert. It was very beautiful. When she thought about it—when she really thought about it—it was like a crime, to build in a place as beautiful as this.
       “Excuse me,” she said to the girl behind the counter. “Is it possible to make a donation? Can I do that?”
       “Absolutely,” the girl said. She looked like a teenager. “How much would you like to donate?”
       “Ten thousand dollars,” she said.
       “That’s so generous,” the girl said. “And how would you like to pay?”
       “You can use the credit card on file,” Naomi said.
       The girl tapped away in a circumspect series of keystrokes. He would cancel the charge, she knew—her married man. He could cancel the charge, the credit card. Perhaps there would be a fight. She could practically predict it, how he would call and lecture her, what he might say. You fucking prick, she imagined saying to him. I could have died. She imagined herself standing over him and screaming at the top of her lungs. It should have been you in the car. I wish it had been you and I wish I had never met you. Then she pictured him in the car, in her place: feeling the wheels slide and nose over the dip of the road, seeing the ground rising up to the window like a fist and knowing there was not a single thing he could do. He had stolen a year of her life with every intention of leaving her. Who knew how many childbearing years she had left?
       The girl handed Naomi her receipt. “Can I help you with anything else?” she asked.
        “How do I look?” Naomi asked, pulling her hair away from her face.
       “Good,” the girl said.
       “You can be honest,” Naomi said.
       “I am,” the girl said.
       Naomi shook her head. She felt near tears. “It’s been a horrible year. Did you know I had a car accident? I drove off the road.”
       “I’m—I’m very sorry,” the girl said.
       “I didn’t think it would bother me so much,” Naomi said. She saw the girl’s hand flutter over the phone, like she was going to call for help, the same as she would do for the other women. The women who had cried and cradled themselves with their fleshy arms. She looked around to see if she could see one of them now, the woman from the sauna, or the thin woman. But the room was crowded with women. There were so many of them: sitting and stretching and yawning and laughing and talking. Every one of them was like an ambulatory secret, circling just out of reach.

© 2022   Erin Gravley

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