- The Spa Cure
Dora dropped again into my neat, orderly European life like a cold on a rainy day. We’re cousins, the same age, both from Cleveland – the Ohio one, and both in our forties. We even went to the same church as kids. I’ve known her all my life, but we’ve never really sought each other out or spent much time together. I work in the State Department, am presently based in Germany, and stopped going to church when I got tired of being disillusioned by the discrepancies between word and deed. She’s still in Cleveland, working in an office – I think as some sort of low-level secretary whose promotions are based purely on her ability to stay put. In her private life she stayed put too, moving back home after her marriage fiasco. When her husband left her for another woman in the first year of their marriage, she moved back to her parents and stayed there for twenty years, until last year, when she finally moved into an apartment five miles from home.
“I read your blog posts about your trip to Czechoslovakia,” Dora wrote. She can’t even get the name right. It’s been the Czech Republic for about twenty years, almost half of our lives. “You make everything sound so interesting! Your stay in that spa town sounds like just the right thing for me. I need to lose some weight - it’s just not working on my own. Every time I see a cake it seems to be calling me. Do you think you could arrange one of those European spa vacations?”
A month later, there she was, all 248 pounds of her, waddling out of baggage claim at Frankfurt airport on stilettos, wearing a short sundress. I wanted to laugh – a dumpy, over-sized cream puff on stilts just didn’t look quite as sexy as I imagined she wanted to look. Without her weight and short stature I wouldn’t have recognized her. I hadn’t seen her in five years. After her divorce she was a bit plumper than before, but now it was as though she’d stuffed a big feather pillow under her dress. Her face was almost beyond recognition - her once brunette hair dyed blonde, all piled up like a would-be movie star. Her formerly nondescript eyes were now glopped with thick eyeliner, smoky eye shadow, and mascara as thick as chocolate glaze. I wondered how she could keep them open with the weight of all that makeup.
“Oh, Kath – you’re looking great! And you haven’t changed a bit,” she gushed, pressing me tightly to her ample bosom. “I’m so excited to be here! And who knows what adventures lie ahead of us. Imagine – a week in a spa, maybe we’ll each land ourselves a handsome dude. We’ve both been single long enough.”
“I’m not fishing,” I said. Finding Mr. Right has proven to be impossible. After more disappointments than I can count, I’ve given up. But my answer to Dora did sound a bit brusque, so I tried to soften it. “It’s good to see you, too. Whatever happened to your hair? I hardly recognized you.”
“Oh, that,” she giggled. “I’ve gone all gray since I saw you last. I had a beauty makeover. Do you like it?”
How to respond to that?! “You look almost like a new person! Wait till you get started on that cure – it’ll be awesome.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her within the first two minutes of seeing each other that I’d be leaving her to visit friends in Copenhagen after the weekend.
The following day, a Friday, we drove off to what the Germans call Marienbad, Mariánské Lázn in Czech.
We passed one magnificent hotel after the other. “There’s an American flag. And there’s another!” she said as we passed the Edinburgh, the Royal, the Olympia, and other hotels with English names. “They must cater to Americans and Brits.” A seemingly endless, dark pine forest flanked our left as we climbed, ending at the top of a high hill. Far below us, the shingled red roofs of the town twinkled in the reflected sunlight.
“Just fill your lungs with this pine-scented air. I could stay here forever!” exclaimed Dora as we got out of the car.
The next morning was the obligatory doctor’s appointment. “I’ll sit out here in the waiting room while you talk to the doctor,” I said. Seconds later, Dora appeared at the door, beckoning frantically.
“I can’t understand a word the doctor’s saying. You’ve got to come in and translate. Nobody speaks English here, not even the doctor.”
Fifteen minutes later, back in our suite, we were sitting on her bed. She dropped a form printed in German onto my lap. “Translate, please. I forgot every word he said.”
The doctor had prescribed aroma massages, head massages, a mud pack, even a chocolate massage. She was to bathe in the spa water - a pearl bath, it was called. Inhalation, oxygen therapy, the list went on and on. A diet was specified.
“Here it says you have to be on a 1,000 calorie-a-day diet. Only fruit for dessert is allowed.”
“Where’s your treatment list?”
“Oh, Dora – I didn’t have the heart to tell you before. I’m flying to Copenhagen on Monday to visit friends.”
She took her list back, frowned, and left for the first activity of the day – a chocolate massage. We met later for lunch.
The hotel restaurant had everything I love about old Europe – endlessly high ceilings with stucco molding, real Bohemian crystal chandeliers, starched white tablecloths with matching napkins, and even fresh flowers at each table. But the people! Almost all of them were senior citizens, most of them German, here for a cheap vacation, since the prices were lower than in Germany. They were the kind of people I see when I go shopping at Aldi – bulging women with unstyled short cropped hair that looked like someone had taken a paper scissors to it. Many men were balding, with beer bellies.
One of those stodgy couples asked if they could join us. In German.
“Of course! Sit right down. We’d love to have you join us,” answered Dora in English. They looked puzzled. This was going to be fun – translating both ways.
“Your cousin is enchanting,” said the woman to me, midway through the meal, when Dora was at the buffet, getting seconds on pot roast and dumplings. “She’s so warm and friendly.”
I nodded silently. She is also very overweight, I wanted to say. Like you.
Doris returned, her plate a mound of meat and bread dumplings submerged in creamy gravy.
I suppressed the urge to comment, instead saying “This lady says you’re very friendly.”
“Why, thank you,” Dora turned to the lady, smiling. “How sweet of you to say that.”
As we returned to our room, Dora clutched my arm. “You’ve got to stay on, Kathy! I can never understand a thing anyone says to me if you don’t translate for me. Please, stay!”
“I’ll think about it.” My time in Copenhagen was about to disappear into Dora’s blubber. Why had I ever consented to letting her come?
She yawned. “I think I’ll lie down for a bit.”
I sat down at the desk in our suite at my laptop. After a couple of hours, needy of a break, I knocked on Dora’s door. No response. I peeked into the room. No sign of her.
As I walked downstairs to the bar, I could already hear her gutsy laugh.
She was seated with a man about our age who looked much like the other men we’d seen, glasses, balding, with a round belly. On the table were tall glasses of some creamy-looking coffee drink. I noticed a piece of cheesecake at his place, and at Dora’s, a four-inch slice of black forest cake topped with about a cup of whipped cream spilling onto the sides.
“Kathy! Come on over and join us,” she called. “I found someone who speaks English.”
I sat down. “Kathy, this is Karel. He teaches English at a school for disabled kids in Prague.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I mumbled. What about your diet? screamed my mind, while Dora idly lifted a bite of cake into her mouth. I was overweight once myself, in college. During my freshman year I gained twenty pounds from the dorm food. That scared me, so I went to WeightWatchers. That weight stayed off, and will stay off for the rest of my life. I’ll make sure of that. So why couldn’t Dora do the same?
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Dora. “But how can I come to Europe and not at least try the cakes? You know how I am about cake. After this, I’ll be disciplined.” She took another bite and chewed slowly, reverently, her eyes half closed, dreamy. “Karel tells me this is a German recipe. I swear, this is the best cake I’ve ever had. I’ll get the recipe and put it in the church cookbook we’re compiling.”
“It’s got Kirsch in it,” I said.
“Oh, really? Well, no matter. Our church has moved on. Alcohol isn’t on the black list anymore.”
Porkers and tipplers for the Kingdom! I refrained from my expressing my sarcastic thoughts.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to her coffee.
“Oh, that. That’s Irish coffee. Karel says it’s very popular in Europe. It’s delicious! Have a sip.”
“I think it’s got whiskey in it. No thanks – I don’t drink in the afternoon.”
She carefully scraped a little whipped cream and flaked chocolate onto her fork and slipped it into her mouth. “This chocolate! So smooth, dark as the forest. And the cherries.” She picked one out with her fork. “It must be the alcohol. They’re perfect - just slightly tangy. Karel, have a bite. Kathy?” She nudged her plate in his direction, then in mine.
“Isn’t it sad?” she said, as we walked back to our room. “His story is just like mine – his wife left him for another man. She said he was too fat. He’s here to lose weight, just like me.”
I hated myself, feeling so critical of Dora. But I could see that her diet would, just like my trip to Copenhagen, disappear into an invisible fat vault, like that piece of cake. I was, sadly, right.
The next two days I worked out, swam, and went Nordic walking while Dora soaked in her hot pearl baths, indulging in aroma massages and facials. While I forced sulfurous spa water down, she presumably sipped Irish coffee with Karel. She was constantly with him now, morning, noon, and night. At every meal I watched what went inside their mouths while they laughed at jokes I had no insight into. I spent Sunday night alone in our suite. Strangers bedding together in hotels must be off the black list these days, too.
On Monday, three days into our treatment, Dora invited me to join Karel and her for coffee. After ordering, she folded her hands and gazed at me with her gooey, chocolaty mascara eyes. “I’m sorry for begging you to stay, just to translate,” she said.
“Oh, that’s OK. I’m having a great time here.”
“I’m so relieved. Anyway, you don’t have to stay any longer, just for me. Karel said he can translate for me now.”
“But I canceled my flight already.”
“Oh, really? That’s too bad.” She patted my arm. “At least, you’re having a good time.”
“No, I’m not! I was just being polite. You’ve ruined everything! Your diet is ruined, and my trip is ruined.”
“What do you mean? This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me! Karel is in love with me! He says I’m so much fun and relaxing to be with. He’s talking about staying with me in Cleveland in the fall. Apparently you Europeans get a lot of vacation.”
“I’m not European.”
“Well, whatever. You know what I mean. Anyway, he’s coming. Isn’t that wonderful!”
No, it was not. Dora was being selfish, very un-Christian, and my vacation was ruined.
“No, it’s not. I’m stuck here now.”
“I thought you liked it here.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. We’ve been leaving you out. Come join us for dinner tonight – that will feel better. We’d love to have you.”
“I’ve been with you every night for dinner, but you haven’t noticed.” I could hold my true feelings back no longer. They spouted out like the spa water gushing out of the fountain at the colonnade.
“You don’t even care about losing weight! It’s not fair! I came here just for you, and now look what’s happened!” I shouted. I knew I sounded childish, but I didn’t care.
“Oh, Kathy. I’m so sorry you feel that way. I’m afraid I’m hopeless with diets. But I’m in love. I haven’t felt so wonderful in years!”
Here I was, knocking myself out to be in shape, trying my very best, yet forever single, while Miss Piggy just floats off to Europe, wallowing into Mr. Perfect’s welcoming arms. Well, maybe he wasn’t that perfect, but still. No effort, no discipline at all, and she ends up with the man of her dreams.
“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I do nothing to deserve it, and I land the big one. Literally.”
I had to laugh. Why were fat people always the funniest?
“But you know, Kath, you’ve got it good.”
“I do? How?”
“As they say, virtue is its own reward.”
If I were the violent type, I would have punched her in the nose. Instead, I called the waiter over.
“Waiter, make that another Irish coffee – double the whiskey.”
2. Having Given Up
Having given up expectations,
I gave up hope.
Having given up hope,
I gave up longing.
Having given up longing,
I gave up sadness.
Having given up sadness,
I gave up goals.
Having given up goals,
I gave up frustration.
Having given up frustration,
I gave up fury.
Having given up fury,
I gave up horror.
Having given up horror,
I gave up fear.
Having given up fear,
I gave up loneliness.
Having given up loneliness,
I gave up loathing.
Having given up loathing,
I gave up hatred.
Having given up hatred,
I gave up confusion.
Having given up confusion,
I gave up exhaustion.
Having given up exhaustion,
I gave up love.
Having given up love,
I had nothing left to give.
Having nothing left to live,
I had emptiness.
God filled me.
Being filled with God,
I had joy.
7 April, 2013