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Oct/Nov 2017 Fiction

Hot Springs

by John Martin

Image excerpted from A Nice Cup of Tea by Roe LiBretto

Image excerpted from Raising Consciousness by Roe LiBretto


We were still a bit numb from all the miles that we'd clocked since 6:00 a.m. (and no bathroom break since stopping for lunch), but then we suddenly came to a rise in the road that opened onto a valley and a blue channel of water that glistened and shifted like the back of a snake, at which point our father directed our attention to a billboard depicting a family in swimsuits lounging around the edge of a pool. Text at the top of the billboard read Holliday Springs. Smaller words underneath promised "Less than a half hour away." I already felt better.

My brother Devon asked if that was the way a hot springs actually looked.

"Not like any hot springs I've ever seen," my father said, exchanging some kind of look with my mother.

I remembered reading on the website that clothing at the hot springs was optional after sundown, and for reasons I would come to regret, decided to contribute this information to the conversation.

Visibly squaring her shoulders, my mother said in a voice dialed to a low boil, "Now how is it that you know something like that? Did you know that, Alan, did you?" she interrogated my father, daring him to corroborate.

My father, sensing a trap, replied with a shrug.

Apparently now there were things I was also forbidden to know. No doubt my parents would eventually ask why I was sulking ("self-reflection" was, to my mother's way of thinking, just another word for sulking), but by then we would be at the hot springs and maybe I could get off by myself for a while.

"Well, it appears we've arrived!" my father exclaimed as if this was the moment we all had been waiting for. I quickly sized up the motel and the surrounding structures, noting the pool and the two levels of rooms, with the uppermost level accessed by staircases positioned at both ends. Each of the rooms had a door painted orange and a large picture window. I could see a woman with enormous blond hair standing behind a counter made of wood laminate through the office window and off to the right, the television that kept her company. There was also a display case filled with brochures, a coffee table, and chairs. Not nearly as fancy or nice as the hotel we'd stayed in in Disneyworld, but then, this was clearly no Disneyworld.

Before my mother could interject, I climbed out of the car and followed my father into the office. "Howdy" shouted the woman with the big hair as we opened the door. "What can I do you folks for?"

"I have a reservation. Last name is Smith."

"You don't say!" the woman laughed, shaking her head as if my father had been pulling her leg. "Well, my name is Dotty and that there is Ray. Ray's blind as a bat, so if he don't talk to you, don't take offense. He don't mean anything by it."

Turning my eyes to the person called Ray, I saw a man dressed in a rumpled plaid shirt and shorts sitting next to the television. A pair of aviator-style sunglasses covered his eyes. "Morning," he said with the punctuality of a dog that's been taught to bark on command, after which a death-like expression fell over his features. As my father filled out the guest card, I found myself sneaking occasional glances at him, checking to see if he was watching and if so, what or how he was watching. Is a person who's blind totally blind, or can they see shapes, patterns of shadow and light? I wondered if he could feel my eyes studying him, or if those senses were broken as well. My father completed his business, and we left the office. When I turned to see what Ray was doing one final time, I could have sworn he was looking at us.

While my father pulled the bags from the trunk, I searched the foothills behind the motel for a way to the hot springs, eventually spotting a footpath that zigzagged from the base to the crest and a sign near the top of the hill with words I couldn't make out. "Do you suppose that's the way to the hot springs?"

"I suppose," my father answered, his attention still taken up by the luggage.

"I think I'll go check it out."

"After you get settled into your room, of course."

My father handed me my suitcase. My brother was already standing next to my mother, holding his bag. "Alice, you and your brother are in Room 27. Here's the key. Your father and I are in the room directly next door, so you better behave yourselves." I understood that the warning was meant mostly for me, but Devon also responded with an irreverent baring of teeth.

"Once we've unpacked, what do you say we find someplace to eat? After that, we can put on our swimsuits and go up to the hot springs. See what all the fuss is about. Sound like a plan?" It may have been meant to sound like a suggestion, but of course it was anything but.

 

My parents informed us the following day that the "first item on the agenda" was the pool, after which we would drive into town for a nice lunch and then on to Yim Canyon to take in the sights. Whenever our family took a vacation, our parents always drew up a list of attractions we had to make time to visit, and from that they would write out a schedule to keep us on track. While they liked to pretend that nothing "was written in stone," we never veered from those schedules. Not ever.

The temperature was close to 90 degrees by the time we got to the pool, and there were already at least seven or eight families situated around the pool's concrete apron. With no one else my own age in the vicinity, my attention was immediately drawn to two little girls who were tossing a ball back and forth and giggling the way girls that age do. When the ball took a bad bounce and landed at my feet, I retrieved it, but instead of throwing it back, I held onto it until one of the girls came over to fetch it. "What do you say?" their mother prompted after I gave her the ball.

"Thank you," she dutifully answered, and then returned to her game.

"You're welcome," I replied, trying to sound older than I actually was. The mother smiled and nodded politely. The husband, his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses, seemed to be watching me.

I heard a car engine start, probably Dotty slipping out for an errand. The blind man was nowhere in sight.

I coaxed a dollar out of my father for the vending machine in the front office. Ray was still sitting in the same chair where he'd been on the day we'd arrived. As the office door closed behind me, he turned his head slightly and smiled. "Something I can help you with?"

"I'm just getting a soda," I heard myself answer.

"Hot one today, isn't it?"

"Sure is."

"Got your money and everything?"

"I thought that I did," I replied as I read the directions. "I thought it was only a dollar, but I see now that it's more."

"How much you need?"

"Twenty-five cents."

The blind man reached into his pocket and pulled out some change. "See what you need?" he asked, and extended his palm.

I moved a little bit close to see what he had in his hand. There were at least a half dozen quarters, along with some Lifesavers and what looked like a button. Peering into his sunglasses, I saw the two white orbs of his eyes, crazily skewed like balls on a pool table, and felt a great sense of relief, realizing now that he truly was unable to see, and not just pretending. "Don't be shy now," he said as he jingled the change in his hand. I picked out one single quarter and thanked him for it.

"Glad I could help," he answered, and then sat back down in his seat. As I fed the money into the machine, he said, "I think I might have one of those too. Would you mind hanging back here a minute to help me?"

What could I say? If I hurried I could get to the door quick enough to create the impression that I'd already left, but the soda I'd come for still hadn't dropped, and if I returned to the pool empty-handed my father would ask for his dollar back. Ray got up from his seat and began to move toward me. "If they weren't always changing the selections around, I'd be able to do this myself. The thing is, I have no way of telling if a selection is out. So you see what a pickle I'm in."

I laughed at his joke, which seemed to please him, and I felt a little more comfortable after sharing this moment with him. But then, in the next instant, the questions returned: Would he know his way to the machine, or would I have to help him? Could he count out his own change? As I reviewed all the different scenarios, playing them out one by one in my head, Ray approached the machine without even so much as a request for my help and fed five quarters into the slot. "Could you press the one that says 'Dr. Pepper' for me?"

"It looks like it's empty."

"See what I mean?" I caught a whiff of the cologne he was wearing, and leaned a little bit forward. I realized too that he'd known all along where I'd been standing in relation to the machine, and had used it to expertly navigate himself past me. I asked him how it was that he was able to sense where I was.

"If I'm in the same room with someone, I can feel where they are. You probably do the same thing yourself, but you check in with your sight first because it's the sense you trust most."

I closed my eyes briefly to see if what he said was true. "I would still miss it—being able to see I mean."

"Yes, it's certainly one of those things that regular people can't imagine doing without. For me, the only reason I miss it at all is because people never tire of asking me how I'm getting along. But it's only a handicap because the world tends to favor those who can see. The world handicaps me, but in and of itself I don't consider it a handicap."

"You don't?"

"When I hear people criticize the way someone looks, or the way they themselves look, all I can think is, I'm pretty lucky not to have worries like that. You can't be blind and vain at the same time. It's like oil and water, oil and water."

 

"So, how are we all doing so far?" father asked the family that night over dinner. We were all seated around a thick wooden table in a restaurant purported to have the best ribs in town. It felt more like a barn than a restaurant to me. I couldn't wait to get back to the motel.

"It's pretty cool," Devon shrugged, sticking a French fry into his mouth.

"It's good" I agreed, my plate still untouched.

"That's all you can say?" My mother already seemed to be angry.

"I said it was good."

"Aren't you hungry? After all that fresh air and exercise, you should be hungry."

"You'd think. Maybe I'm just some kind of freak."

"Some kind of freak? Are we counting them now?"

"Okay, I guess there's just me. Is that what you want me to say?"

My father said to no one in particular, "What I'd like to know is why every time we sit down to eat, it turns into a fight?"

"You want to know why? Because her highness here gives us nothing but attitude. I ask a simple question, and all's I get are snide comments and insults. I deserve a little respect, don't I?"

"And I don't?"

"A family is not a democracy, much as you might like to think that it is."

"Trust me, I never thought that."

The family fell silent. I thought back to my encounter with Ray and the way he had spoken to me, like I was an equal and not someone to be controlled and "adjusted" like a piece of touchy machinery. I wondered if my family would forever see me as inadequate and difficult, or if in time I would grow into someone worthy of their respect. Some versions of the future are easier to picture than others, and this was not one I could even believe in much less imagine.

Back in my room after dinner, I sat by the window watching the guests coming in and out of their rooms while my brother lay on his bed absorbed in the TV. Dotty came out of the office to lock up the pool for the night with Ray trailing a little behind her. He was wearing a white terrycloth robe and flip flops, and he had a towel draped over his arm. Though he tapped at the ground with a stick as he walked, I thought it was probably perfunctory and that he'd committed the path to memory ages ago. As he passed behind the motel and then reemerged on the path leading up to the hot springs with only moonlight to illuminate his progress, he cut a pale, spectral figure against the dark earth of the path—an image that only seemed to exaggerate the aura of mystery and other-worldliness I'd begun to associate with him.

As though sensing that he was being observed, he stopped at one point midway up the hill and looked my direction. I waited for the wave of acknowledgment I idiotically felt was forthcoming until I reminded myself that, oh yes, he's still blind. Whatever this sense was that had caused him to turn was able to "see" just as much as I was able to see with my eyes, and I thought it awfully unfair that I should have to be even more careful with someone like Ray than I would have been around one of my own kind. But at the same time I also wondered what sort of images people like Ray carried around in their heads. I wished there were some way for him to share them with me.

 

"Good morning, Alice."

"Now how do you do that?" I exclaimed, sticking my lip out. He was so calm and contained that I felt clumsy just being around him. And yet, for reasons that I did not fully understand, I looked forward to the feeling, the way that I still looked forward to Christmas morning, with a mixture of anticipation and heightened anxiety.

He moved his head slightly as if to get a better look at me. "As I explained to you before, I can sense when someone is nearby. And now that we're friends, I have a pretty good idea when that someone is you."

Was it my smell? The heat I gave off? To think that he might be sensing such things made me uncomfortable. "But how, specifically, do you know? I still don't understand."

"It's just a feeling I get about people. Haven't you ever been sitting in a room and suddenly realized that someone was watching you?"

"I suppose."

"So it's like that. Our bodies know more than we realize. People who can see tend to tune all the other stuff out. I tune into it first."

Thank you for making me feel complicated and interesting, I wanted to tell him. Thank you for considering me worthy of adult confidences.

"You think you don't matter, that you're invisible. Am I right? You've learned to accept this invisibility of yours so that when someone actually takes notice, you don't know how to react. It makes you uncomfortable. And yet, you still find it strangely exciting. That's the way it should be."

Our family had planned from the very beginning of our trip to spend our last night at the hot springs, but as the stalemate between my mother and me escalated into a prolonged, hostile silence, a trip to the hot springs seemed less and less likely. So it came as quite a surprise when my father asked if anyone cared to join him for a last swim at the hot springs after dinner.

"Not for me, thank you," my mother replied, the first words she'd spoken all day.

"Well, I think that we should. Who knows when we'll ever see this place again."

"If you think that her highness," my mother jerked a thumb my direction, "deserves to go out, I guess that's your call. Can't say I'd agree with it though."

"I'll stay in my room, if that's what you want."

"Go with your father," my mother answered wearily, suddenly defeated. I suspected that my parents had already discussed the extent to which I should be punished, and that my mother's somewhat reluctant surrender was just her way of letting me know that although my father had won, the next time I might not be so lucky. "I think I'll turn in anyway."

Thus it was decided that we would spend our last night in the hot springs. A lot of the guests had the exact same idea as it turned out because by the time we arrived, a dozen or so people had already settled into the water.

"It's like sharing a bathtub with strangers," my father whispered as he eyed the rest of the guests. And then, in an even lower voice, "Do you suppose any of them are swimming sans bathing suit?"

With all the bare shoulders and the rest submerged underwater, it was a bit hard to tell. But as I continued to watch, I eventually came to the conclusion that everyone there was wearing a bathing suit and that the rumors of skinny dipping had probably been just that—rumors. I must admit that I felt a bit disappointed.

"Dad, I'm not feeling so good," Devon said to us out of the blue. We'd only been in the pool five minutes or so. His face was screwed up into a grimace of pain.

"What's wrong there, buddy? Where is this coming from?"

"I feel like I'm going to throw up."

"Do we need to head back to the room?"

"I think so."

"How 'bout you, sweetie? Ready to go back?"

"Could I stay a bit longer?" I pleaded, expecting the usual answer.

Surprisingly, my father consented. "Just don't stay too long. Fifteen minutes, max. Otherwise, I'll have to come looking for you."

Could it be that my father had actually made up his mind to give me the freedom I so clearly desired? It seemed hard to believe. But if he had been taking my side all along or at least reminding my mother to cut me some slack once, I felt a little ashamed for expecting the worst of him.

Paddling away from the shore, I ventured further out into the water, turning over onto my back to gaze up at the stars. Was I truly ready for independence and the responsibilities that would no doubt accompany it? In the silence of those dark woods, with nothing but water to support me, I realized that I would need help, that the relationships that had sustained me thus far in my life would in time fall away or transform into new kinds of relationships, different but equally necessary.

Submerging my ears under the water, the voices around me grew distant and muffled like the sound a movie heard through the wall of a theatre, so that it became even easier to withdraw into myself and imagine that I was alone. The water held me aloft and supported my weight, probing my body as shamelessly as a lover might do—or so I imagined. And yet, I felt sure of this truth, just as I felt sure of my breath, of the heart that pumped life through my body. When I finally righted myself in the water, I saw much to my surprise that everyone had left, and that I was alone.

I heard him immediately, though it took several minutes before he emerged from the woods, wearing that same robe as he'd worn yesterday evening, the towel slung like before over his arm. He stood at the edge of the water a moment, as though reaching the end of a scent he'd been tracking—and then, confident of his findings, set the towel down on the tree trunk directly beside him, unbelted his robe, and then set that down too.

I'd never seen a man naked before—really, I'd never seen anyone naked before unless I counted myself. Reflexively, I tested the roundness first of my thighs, and then my waist, and finally, the tops of my arms, confirming that everything was just the same as before, fearing that the water had altered me somehow, reduced me to something strange and unrecognizable. I stealthily made my way to a point farthest away from him as he entered the water. The thought of engaging in conversation with someone without clothes was out of the question. I thought that I too would feel equally naked, that the thin bands of fabric that covered my private areas would provide no more protection than all the other illusions Ray had taught me to see.

But of course he knew of my presence there in the water, just as he'd known all the other times, except that now, I sensed that his knowledge had grown deeper, more complete, so that I could not escape or refute it, his gaze never faltering, or glancing away, as though willing me to acknowledge his arrival and move past the tension that must always collect between people pretending not to know things that they already know.

How much longer would I be permitted to pretend not to know?

 

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