Mrs. Lorna Johnson of North Dakota perches on the spa’s chair. The robe’s terry cloth fibers scratch her bare back like baby fingernails. She glances around, her gaze darting side-to-side, leery of these goings-on in this fancy schmancy floating beauty salon pretending to be a resort spa. The walls are painted dark green, accented with white lines that are supposed to mimic Norwegian birch trees. The ceiling lights are few and far, casting separate circles of piercing white on the dark floor and walls.
It is 4:30 and the cruise ship has left the dock. She’d been told it needed to spin in the harbor, so its front could leap out into the Mediterranean Sea, a blanket of turquoise waters. Instead, it is strangely bouncy for a 1000-person ship. The waves create not a sweet roll but hiccups, like bumping over potholes on a failing asphalt street. Mrs. Johnson sips her glass of water. She won’t let herself be seasick, even though she's never been on a ship this big or any kind of ocean-going vessel. Her son has sent her and her twin brother Larry to celebrate their 70th birthdays, now that they are both widowed. Her brother, the old fool, is trying out the snow cave on board.
The trip is a nice gift—one she is trying hard to appreciate. If only she could figure out how to relax in this strange environment. She knows from the sweat lodge of her friend Karen Singing-Bird that she must be naked under her robe to gain the full benefit of the experience. She was totally comfortable with Karen, who showed her how to scrape the sweat off her ample thighs and sagging homey breasts with a willow branch. She’d found a towel in her locker—what is she supposed to do with it? She wishes Karen was on this cruise instead of her brother.
“Excuse me, do I need the towel for my massage?” She asks a woman with almond-shaped eyes and sleek black hair. Mrs. Johnson knows she is not Mexican. They work in the sunflower fields between her farm and Minot, and their hair is wiry, untamed in the summer heat. She is not Vietnamese—their church sponsored the boat people back in the '70s when the American Embassy fell. Her eyes are not flat in her head, like the Vietnamese. Mrs. Johnson learned to talk with both kinds of women over time.
The woman stops cold like she has been caught in a security spotlight after hours at the Hy-Vee grocery parking lot. “Have you checked in yet, Madam?”
“Pardon? That’s not what I asked.” Mrs. Johnson sloshes water as she sets down her glass.
“You must check in, Madam.” She wears a brown two-piece uniform, same outfit as the manager who booked her appointment or the young Eastern European woman who escorted her into the dressing room and showed her the locker.
“I already have. What about the towel?” Mrs. Johnson tightens the belt of her robe, under which she is properly naked. How could she be naked unless she had properly checked in at the spa reception? The boat under her feet takes a hop like the lid on her old tea kettle at a full boil.
The woman takes another towel off the shelf and hands it to Mrs. Johnson. Trained to be polite by her mother, her grandmother, and her older sisters, now all long dead, she accepts it. This woman is no help with figuring out the rules.
Whatever is she doing here? Is she ready for the young man named Molis to run his hands over her old muscles, lubricating her age-spotted skin with scented oils? A memory flirts, chasing her worries. A massage long ago on a sunny beach. It was Florida with Herman. He was naked under a long linen sheet on the next massage table. The Gulf of Mexico’s waves rolled into the rocks with a rhythmic roar, almost like the choir singing Faith of our Fathers. Herman, eyes closed, smiling.
This ocean underneath her feet, beneath the pale Nordic wood flooring, under the steel hull, tips the boat side to side, like it is trying to escape the ship’s weight. She stands with feet shoulder width apart, her toes gripping her spa slippers to steady herself from the bucking of the ship.
Should she leave? Go to the locker and get dressed and flee to her stateroom, mid-ship, which promises to be less bumpy? No—she will not surrender to fear, to confusion, to age. She will have this massage. She will let Milos stroke and rub and titillate without any sexual response from her, but she’ll feel delight inside.
“Mrs. Johnson?” The door opens and a tall, formidable man, Milos on his nametag, greets her. He is light-skinned, fair-haired, almost luminous in the dark room.
“Yes. That’s me.” She dumps both towels on her chair, sliding past the black-haired woman. “I’m ready.”
About the Author
Julie Wakeman-Linn writes and bird watches on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. She edited the Potomac Review for a dozen years. Two dozen of her short stories are forthcoming or have been published in a variety of literary magazines. More information is at www.juliewakemanlinn.com.