She had always admired music, and why not, it isn’t so shameful to be a fan of something, a genuine fan whose passion and admiration is matched only by their ignorance. So gazing over at Lila while the piano made its slow ambient descent down the scale over the speakers she gazed with a heart full of love yes so full of love of music and of Lila too, of Lila lounging across from her on the great white sofa looking very closely at a translucent yellow pill, admiring it and saying that the capsule looked like a tiny bead of light. She swallowed it and washed it down with cucumber water. And then, looking back over at Derry, she waited for a response.
Derry, alarmed and dreamy, always so anxious yet constantly losing the thread of her concern, now she was looking out across the patio with its cool light on the gray stones, making them look like lilac tiles, out past the tiny bowls of salt placed at the walls of the seaside spa, out at the dark field which she knew to be the sea and which was rising and falling with the music. Trying not to look at Lila, trying not to disturb her. She was searching for it: the ocean. For the lovely sea which could be smelled and heard but not seen in the heavy blackness of the night, invisible and nearly silent, but immense in its presence like a beast lurking in bushes. I have never been to a place so luxurious, she thought, remembering her nervousness: a place beside the sea.
“Doesn’t it, Derry?” Lila interrupted.
“Of course!!” said Derry, exposed.
It was a familiar tone of voice, Lila’s: soft the way a tiger’s paw is soft. Often while out with their friends on the hot porches of cafés or huddled together in corners of bars they would all lounge around drinking coffee or tea, laughing and speaking to one another with a kind of lush and knowing softness, and Derry became aware of what she considered a very manufactured elegance, unreal and tenuous, like a spell, the inexplicable desire to destroy it, to destroy something, to ruin the moment with a dumb joke or an idle observation. Because she was somebody who liked to run her mouth. To hear people say banal things. But wanting to impress Lila she was finding herself mute and distracted, though hoping quietly all the while that being here together would eventually allow them to feel out whether it was all right to drop the act.
She closed her eyes very intentionally, chastising herself for having lost focus. She opened them again, leaned forward in her chair and smiled, vowing elegance.
“Um, how do you like the cucumber water?” Derry asked.
“It’s fine...” said Lila.
She picked up her phone, typing quickly with her exfoliated and well-manicured fingers. Meanwhile a woman came by with a little platter of raw oysters over ice, lemon-drenched.
Derry popped one into her mouth. Lila looked at her.
“Derry, do you think I’m somebody who is wise?”
“Undoubtedly...” said Derry, chewing.
Lila smiled at her. “Thanks,” she said.
Hard not to hate somebody like that. But she spoke earnestly, with a frank way of looking right at a person. And although she was a little vain, a little pushy, she was never cruel. For all her faults, Derry would not withstand cruelty. She ate another oyster, chewing, still nervous. Say something, she told herself. You’re blowing it. But the air was so calm so serene and so dense with the weight of the ocean that it almost felt sacrilegious to say anything, don’t destroy the silence with your nonsense, don’t destroy the perfect silence (she swallowed), only Lila could say something, Lila who was uninterested in and acclimated to large circles of raw oysters. Lila said:
“My mother used to take me here. Did you know that?”
“No!” said Derry.
“I was very young, so young she didn’t even have to pay a fee for me. She would always put me in a youth yoga class while she went and relaxed with the other women. I only recently started coming again.”
Lila was smiling at the memory. “How nice,” said Derry. She was gazing again. At Lila, at the night, at Lila’s purple handbag, the tiles, the bowls of rock salt.
“Thanks for hearing me out,” said Lila finally, sitting back down in her chair the way a candle is extinguished. “I feel like I’ve been talking a lot,” she said. She frowned. She sighed and wrung her wrists. “Shall we go back in?”
Inside they basked like lizards under the infrared, Lila looking like a speckled one with all her brown freckles, the smearing watercolor tattoo on her ribcage, bright and mottled, and Derry breathing beside her, Derry feeling her wet stomach touching the tile and imagining that it was Lila’s stomach, that she was Lila, dark-haired and with a look gentle and vaguely dissatisfied. How nice it would be to be Lila. They sweat together in the sauna, full of thick mists and large green aloe leaves poking out like sticks of incense. They shivered in the ice bath and dawdled in the hot tub.
It seemed as though time were moving very slowly or not at all. There were no clocks and no windows. Derry thought of lotus-eaters. She tried again to think of something to say to Lila, something impressive. No luck. Then looking around she saw that she retained the impression of the ocean even inside, the walls so wet with condensation, the inside of the spa seeming like a seaside grotto at low tide, like the ocean itself had filled it up completely to every corner of the wall and had now left it empty and dripping.
“Lila, what would your deserted island look like?” Derry said in the hot tub, skittish, pulling her legs up in front of her. Lila stared back at her across the distance of the water. It was just the two of them, besides the stranger who was lounging with closed eyes.
“What do you mean,” said Lila.
“How would you live? I imagine sunsets, dolphins, green coconuts, a little shack by the sea. I think I would build all my buildings in a straight line into the very heart of the jungle where there is a volcano. That way I would never get lost: I would always have a path back to shore. If I could only bring one book, I would bring Dream of the Red Chamber, since it’s so long. If I could only bring one album, I would bring the largest ‘80s compilation I could find. I would catch fish every day and fry them on an open fire.” Suddenly aware of herself she stopped. “That sort of thing,” she added meekly.
Lila looked at her. She was smiling but her eyes were dark.
“That’s cute,” she said.
Derry felt the ocean, twice removed by the walls and by the night.
“I don’t know, Derry,” said Lila with exasperation. “I would sign for help.”
They made an odd pair, meeting one Wednesday night when Lila sang pop songs at a bar, Derry entranced and unaware of the nature of her attraction, which was in truth an attraction to the music and not to Lila, Lila herself, who she had anyway befriended, so that she could be closer to a thing which she loved so much but did not understand, and Lila absorbing her into her orbit the way an enormous flower through its roots consumes a tiny clump of nitrogen.
She made a momentous decision, drying herself off with a towel to step back into the sauna, thinking about it while they steamed, and again while they put on their uniforms to go eat in the café. A momentous decision: she would ruin her own life. Twenty-five years old and she had never ruined her own life. She had never ever even been in trouble. And why not? Plenty of her friends had ruined their lives and been saved. Abusive relationships, drug addictions, psychic breaks, credit card debt from all sorts of things. For Derry it was the right of youth. This was what she was thinking at the massage counter. Meanwhile Lila picked at the remains of her food, the beige uniform enormous on her thin shoulders, staring out at Derry from beneath her bangs, frowning and a little curious.
“I’m going to get us something nice,” Derry had said. Something Lila had never seen before.
The woman at the counter was placid, with very clear skin and a high brown ponytail, dressed in baby blues, chalky greens, purples, inspecting her nails. Derry leaned over the black marble. She stared at the last page of the laminated brochure of spa packages, large and bound in a foamy material, with abstract flowers circling the page numbers.
“Excuse me,” Derry said, her heart pounding.
The woman at the counter glanced up at her, smiling.
“I’d like to get the four-handed massage, and the black caviar mask, for me and for my friend over there.” She pointed at Lila, who was looking at her food again. How silly, ordering a thing like that: a black caviar mask. How silly, pulling out the ruby-colored credit card and signing her name, “Dorothy Bauer,” with a pen affixed with a fake flower, on a receipt for $2,370.23. The woman wrote their numbers in light blue marker on two slips of paper and handed them to Derry.
“I got us something good,” said Derry, returning. She gave Lila the ticket. “You’ll like it.”
“Mm,” said Lila, sipping iced tea through a giant straw.
They lay in the salt room, the baked clay room, the low temperature ice room. When their names were called the women pressed Derry’s head into the face slit and she felt her cheeks bulging through the little hole. She felt the hands of the masseuses on her body. She relaxed. Then they flipped her over and with a paintbrush applied the black beads to her face, the woman with the brush talking all about the vitamins, the minerals, and the amino acids Derry’s face would absorb, and Derry catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, a face filling up with eggs, like a mask studded with tiny fragments of obsidian, the other woman rubbing her shoulders, Derry looking now at Lila’s station just before they put the cucumbers over her eyes, only to see that Lila was no longer there.
She waited for thirty minutes with her hands folded patiently over her body. Maybe Lila ran to the bathroom, she was thinking, quickly and before the mask was applied, but after the massage, since she had drunk so much tea, and now she was back, just across the room. Maybe Lila’s massage table was moved due to some clerical error or Lila’s preference or, God forbid, to get away from Derry. Maybe Lila had grown so bored with her she had driven home. Maybe she had taken an urgent call. Maybe the masseuses were so impressed with the hard softness of her skin, muscular with a soft layer of attractive fat like down feathering, that they had taken her into a special room all her own, a special room where they loved her, yes, where they were in there loving her, covering her with the black caviar beads as black as her hair, leaving Derry all alone under the harshness of the yellow lights.
“Lila,” she called out softly.
“Hm?” said one of the masseuses, apparently across the room.
And so on. Derry’s mask was removed with mineral spring water. Still no Lila. She went and looked for Lila in the sauna, among thick mists. She looked for Lila by the indoor pool where two people were holding each other in the water. She looked for Lila in the cafeteria. She looked for Lila in the ice bath, the warm pool, the hot tub, the salt room, the charcoal room, out on the patio where they had lounged and where the stars were obscured by the rolling black clouds.
Jogging to her assigned locker and changing into her blue jeans and her blouse she checked out and left the spa, forfeiting the $48.27 entrance fee to search for Lila in the open air. She looked all around the parking lot. Lila’s car was still there: the blue sedan with CDs overflowing out of the compartment near the center console. She looked back at the spa, uncomfortably bright in the soft night. She stood there for a moment then decided to take a walk down the asphalt road.
Since the spa was in the middle of nowhere Derry walked along the asphalt where there was no sidewalk, stepping to the grassy bank whenever the gigantic headlights of a truck or a car would appear out of the darkness, the wetlands and the closed strip malls lit by white streetlamps to her right, the grassy dunes leading to the beach to her left. She was sulking about, unsure if Lila were playing a cruel prank on her or if it was something else. She was imagining the conversation with her father. “Oh dad, horrible, it’s horrible, I’ve gone and gotten myself into debt and I don’t have any money to eat,” she would tell him. “Oh, my sweetheart, I thought I always told you to live below your means?” he would say. He would lecture her. And then a text message from her bank would inform her that he had deposited two-thousand dollars into her checking account.
So why did it feel—?
There was a wooden stairwell. She took it and walked its long path down to the ocean, the low bridge through the dunes. Sweet Derry, walking to the ocean. Sweet Derry, who could hardly imagine a consciousness other than her own, who imagined Lila sensitive, who imagined her thoughtful and intelligent, the kind of person who could be entranced by the blackness of the sea, who could feel the rubbery touch of fish eggs on her face and think with authority, Now I will return these children to the ocean.
It was very dark away from the street.
I’m a little scared, thought Derry.
Yes. Maybe Lila was lost by the sea. The dunes were settling; the beach was flat. She walked across the dark sands. The ocean loud and present. The impression of the ocean even then and then going outside and it’s—night. She was groping around in the darkness, searching. Her heart was pounding. Yes, that was something Lila would do. Leave the spa to wash her face in the ocean. Freshly massaged and testing new muscles in the buoyant ocean. Lila realizing the primacy of the ocean. At last they would have something to talk about. Derry’s feet met the shoreline.
“Lila,” she called softly.
Dejectedly she walked along the water. She was lost and so confused. She perked up a little hearing mambo music, the high piano, and in the distance she saw the yellow lights of a seaside shack. It was a sandwich joint. Smoke was drifting up from its aluminum roof and the walls were orange. She went towards it, feeling like a lonely person, always seeking connections. The bar was lively. She climbed onto one of the stools with its red cushion and its metal pole and she ordered a cerveza. What was four more dollars? It came out with a napkin and a lime. Yes, perhaps Lila had gotten lost in the ocean, she thought, taking a drink, swept out to sea as her final movement: a rejection of luxury. You romantic, she thought, chastising herself. She took another sip of beer. She took a second to look around at the patrons and there was Lila, talking to a man, the black caviar in her hair. She was eating an enormous and sloppy Cuban sandwich, the pulled pork clinging to her lip, in a certain sense never looking prettier, as she ate her sandwich almost asymptotically, very slowly, one bite at a time, and smaller and smaller with each bite, so that she could go on eating the sandwich forever, Lila saying “No problem!” to the man and laughing with her yellow teeth, looking like a creature dragged out from sea, catching Derry’s eye out of the corner of her own, the patient way a shallow ocean predator stares you down from across the reef.
Austyn Wohlers is a writer from Atlanta, currently living in Baltimore. Her fiction has previously been featured in MARY, Yalobusha Review, and Shooter.