After breakfast, Vera takes me to the spa on the first floor of the hotel. I study the range of offerings, which include a paraffin bath and a collagen veil, among other mysterious options. I choose a massage.
“I’ll see you at the sauna. First, I’ll go for a swim,” says Vera, going immediately out of sight.
A bulky woman in a pink lab coat, with a thick braid down to her waist and dangle earrings with little bell charms, asks me what kind of massage I want:
“Relaxing, energising or reductive?”
“Right then. We’ll use lavender and rosemary oils.”
Two large hands take hold of my feet and begin to massage them vigorously. Her earrings sway and tinkle at the rhythm of her hands. Strong, warm and powerful hands. A peasant woman’s hands. A strangler’s hands, whispers the fearful little girl who lives inside me.
“We’ll start with the feet. Let’s see what the feet have to tell us.”
I wonder why this woman relishes so much in the use of the first person plural.
“Does it hurt here?” she says, pressing her fingers against my insteps.
“Aha,” she says, without an explanation. “How about here?”
I scream. A tentacle has just pierced through my foot.
“The liver is not well. Mmmm, the spleen is off too.”
“Of course, we tend to take our spleen for granted. Relax, honey, relax.”
Her powerful hands massage me with zeal. While she rubs oil over my shoulders and neck, I realise I’m starving for human touch. I remember an article I read some time ago about newborn babies needing physical contact to survive.
When she is done, the woman leaves me alone for a few minutes in the dark, with soft music playing. Flutes, harps and little birds.
When she comes back, she turns on the light and asks me how I feel. Fine, I say. Better. When I’m slipping back into the robe, she says:
“I’d like to fill out a card with your details. Name?”
She asks for my age, address, telephone number, occupation, email.
“Are you married?”
I tell her that I’ve separated recently.
“Separated,” she says.
“Separated,” repeats my voice, like an echo. The word sounds awful. It is awful.
“Well, alright then, Lucía, it’s been a pleasure,” she says, extending a lotion saturated hand. The next time we’ll use bergamot oil.”
I find Vera at the sauna. The heat is oppressive. I tell her I don’t know if I’ll be able to stand it, that it’s been many years since I’ve been in a sauna, and that the last time was with my mother, who adored saunas.
“I tell you, time at the sauna beats a therapy session any day,” says Vera. “I don’t believe the mind can heal the mind, Lu. Only a happy body can cure us. Here you get rid of toxins, boredom, rage. There’s nothing like alternating hot and cold showers. I don’t know if I’d showed you this book by a guy called Carpio, The Cold Water Cure? Did I lend it to you?”
“The author is a Chilean, a disciple of a great German doctor from the early twentieth century who proposed that all diseases come from what he calls ‘internal fever’ – fire in the digestive system – and that everything can be healed with cold water. The ideal thing would be to sleep with a mud compress on your tummy.”
The books my friend recommends get more and more bizarre with time. But then again, they have the massive virtue of putting a smile on my face.
It’s only three of us women in the sauna: an enormous woman with skin the color of milk, Vera and I. It’s hard for me to stop staring at that woman. It’s as if I had been hypnotised by the power of her ugliness. She is a large pile of white, with flat saggy breasts that hang like empty grocery bags, and legs festooned with thick varicose veins. Vera and I are wrapped in towels, while the woman is stark naked. There’s something provocative about her nakedness. Something sadistic and cruel.
After a while, I feel overwhelmed. The heat is too intense.
I head to the relaxation room.
The woman leaves right behind me.
We lie down in two spa beds, across from each other. The room is dimly lit. I’m beginning to doze off when the woman’s voice startles me. She has a harsh voice.
Pedro would insist that there’s nothing more revealing than the human voice, that subtle bridge between the flesh and the spirit. Just as Pedro, certain voices win me over immediately, while others generate in me aversion, distrust, or fear. This woman’s voice scares me. There’s something terrible about it.
After taking a noisy slurp from her cup of water, she stares at me.
“Is this your first time at the sauna?” she says at last.
“No, but it’s been a long time since the last time.”
Then she tells me that she comes every week on doctor’s orders because of a bronchial condition. She also tells me about her struggle with smoking and obesity. Her high blood pressure, her circulatory problems, her surgeries.
I don’t like talking with strangers, least of all with this woman. Her voice makes me uneasy.
I close my eyes and stay quiet, hoping she’ll stop talking. It’s hopeless.
“Does it bother you if I talk to you frankly, as if I had known you for years?”
“When I first saw you I thought there was something familiar about you. Something of my daughter in you... I don’t know, maybe the look in your eyes.”
She remains silent for a few precious instants and then asks:
“Are you married?”
“Dear god! Women these days...They marry and they separate like there’s nothing to it. Then, they marry again. They think it’s a game. My daughter. She’s not happy with her husband. He’s worthless, a loser. He inherited a textile company from his father but he never knew how to manage it. Now he’s flat broke.” She pauses. “But then there’s the children...one must think about the children. How about you, honey, do you have children?”
“Yes. A daughter.”
She stares at me. Guilty, her eyes say.
“Your husband, was he doing well for himself?”
“Was he violent? An alcoholic?” She dries the sweat off her upper lip and whispers, “Was he a junkie, sweetie?”
“No, none of that.”
“Was he carrying on with someone else?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Anyway, darling, everybody knows that all men are dogs. It’s in their genes. As long as he shows you respect, though, that he doesn’t mess around with your sister, or your best friend, or the help. Other than that, he can do whatever he wants. You put on your best silly face... and your job is done!” She takes another sip of water and dries her mouth with the edge of the towel. At that point she says, “So, why did you separate then?”
“So, why did you separate then?” she probes.
Her question reverberates inside me. The big and small things that led to our separation rush through my mind.
I separated because I’d had enough.
Because I lived under the weight of his criticism. Because, to him, everything I thought seemed silly, all my decisions were unsound, and everything I liked was horrible. I separated because he would wake up in a bad mood and I was his favorite target, because he didn’t look at me when we spoke, because he was always making fun of Vera, because he treated waiters badly, because he hated me when I had a headache, because he couldn’t stand I slept with the light on when there was a storm.
And Pedro? What would he answer?
Pedro would say that he’d had enough.
That he couldn’t put up with my demands any longer. That he was sick of the litany of my complaints, that our conversations always ended with me yelling, that I had lost interest in his things, that I didn’t listen to him, that he was annoyed by my clutter, my childish fears, my lack of common sense, my attachment to the phone, my losing the keys so often, my living in the clouds.
That’s why we separated.
Or, perhaps, because our silences were getting deeper and deeper, because weekends seemed to last an eternity, because we were lonely, because we hardly ever made love, because he resembled my mother, because I didn’t resemble his, because we didn’t share dreams anymore, and because we stopped laughing together.
My voice only says, “We fought a lot.”
Excerpted with permission from The Separation, A Novel, Silvia Arazi, translated from the Spanish by Olga Marino, Yatra Books.