The Allure of the Spa Lobby
The lobby was full of all the typical things you would expect: glowing salt crystals, a Persian rug, a set of dreamcatchers. He would have to apologize before requesting that certain enthusiastic patrons not touch the gong in the corner – it was for decoration. The lobby had high ceilings that trapped pre-recorded raindrops and the slow decay of reverberating footsteps. Sometimes people asked if a used car dealership had once been somewhere around here. His supervisor, Genna, seemed uncomfortable acknowledging this, as if the entire lot were somehow tainted with the possibility that underneath all of the healing organic fragrances one could still smell tire rubber and volatile solvents, potential carcinogens, a reminder of the carbon crisis, third world suffering. Yes, the land had been acquired, and the building refurbished – it had been 5 years, but some people just could not let it go. There was a sign hanging behind the checkout desk made from repurposed wood that may have come from a barn. It read, “The Most Peaceful Place on Earth.”
In the vast stretches of time behind the reception desk he often found his mind wandering. There was something about hairy armpits that turned him on more than any other part of a woman’s body above the waist. Genna’s armpits were hairier than his. He often felt ashamed by the satisfaction he derived whenever she left the desk, sniffing up the bit of her that lingered. It was rare that he was able to say something nice enough to make her thick lips form into the semblance of a smile. She always returned from lunch with expensive snacks, which came labeled with specious health claims, and which were usually trending hard on Pinterest. Immoral food choices caused her to thrust her chin out and change her tone of voice. She could elaborate with unsolicited and exhaustive detail on the geopolitical aspects of additives, which he had never heard of but should avoid. He had mixed feelings about her savant tendencies: amazement and curiosity, insecurity, defensiveness. However, she struggled with finding descriptive words, asked people’s names multiple times, and had to make an L shape with both hands to remember which was her left. It was during these moments, when she had the grace to laugh at herself, that she seemed most attainable, otherwise her aura of pretentiousness would have made her unapproachable, like some kind of chaste deity.
A patron once commented that he must be able to stay so calm, standing there all day and listening to those pre-recorded rain drops, as if his devotion to swiping their plastic cards and forcing himself to smile had resulted in guru status. However, in all honesty, he had been looking around, and there was a cook position at Pizza Hut, which on their website promised career growth potential, and little to no interaction with customers. Sometimes the mineral hot tub, clay facial masks, and sensual massages were not enough to pacify the spa’s regulars, hungry ghosts trying in vain to quell the emptiness with desperate animalistic consumption of relaxation products and rebranded eastern philosophy. No matter how absurd the complaint, he offered profuse apologies and spa discounts until they were satisfied. As a good assistant manager, Genna cared about the customers’ emotional experience, and from their “wellness applications,” which were really just liability waivers, she referenced their dates of birth to speculate on their needs and motivations – particularly when interacting with a Pisces or a Scorpio. She once confided in him that as a true Pisces she had always valued sensitivity, and at the same time struggled with a desire to escape stress. A recent discussion about the upcoming blood moon had somehow transformed into her intuitive perception of his masculine energy, and his long and awkward silences, which she had interpreted as a sign of depth and wisdom. She had been standing much closer to him than usual. His heart was beating faster and he felt uncoordinated, as though he might trip and fall. He was almost positive that they were flirting, and everything he considered saying seemed unattractive in his head, which may have been because he was using a large fraction of his limited thought capacity to berate himself for his cowardice. His stomach was churning and he imagined how mortifying it would be to vomit on her sandals. That was when he blurted out that he was trying to get into meditation.
It was a bold lie, and he waited for her chin to jut forward and her tone of voice to change. Instead, her eyes softened even more, and looking up towards him, she admitted that she felt like a fraud for leading the Saturday Sauna Special, with its emphasis on ancient Sanskrit loving-kindness affirmations. He could have swooned – this was the most honest and vulnerable she had ever been with him, as she lamented that her mind always raced, even after supplementing with L-Theanine and microdosing an anxiety-free strain of CBD oil. An incoming patron rescued him from having to elaborate on his meditation routine, but later that night he began to research, desperate to keep up the flirting momentum. That was how he found the retreat at Whispering River Sangha, which after re-examining his budget and applying the Groupon discount, was steep but doable, and above all, would give him something to talk about.
The morning of the retreat he snoozed his alarm until there was just enough time to start a strong batch of coffee and put on gym clothes. He was beyond the point of sitting down at the table for breakfast. Multitasking was his only chance, and so he grabbed his coffee thermos and poured himself a bowl of cereal for the car. On the way out of the neighborhood he tailgated someone who drove under the speed limit and came to a full stop at every stop sign. Once on the main drag, he surfed back and forth between radio stations and managed not to spill any of his cereal. He balanced the bowl in one hand, taking large gulps and filtering out the puffed rice flakes from the milk with his teeth like a whale consuming a school of plankton. He tried to drink his coffee and burned the roof of his mouth.
While scrolling through emails for the address he got into the wrong lane and lingered there too long. Despite honking his horn and some aggressive hand motioning, the person in the large black truck in the next lane would not let him over, and so he had no choice but to pull onto the interstate ramp heading out of town – at least a five-minute detour. As the truck drove ahead, he spotted a confederate flag bumper sticker. There was a sinking sensation in his stomach and he gritted his teeth as he thought of the bills that he would be struggling to pay, a sacrifice that he had been willing to make, but now he would be missing the introductions and orientation that would be crucial for his enlightenment.
He thought again of the confederate flag on the back of the truck, the driver who seemed so indifferent to his suffering. The world was just full of these assholes, he thought. He was only able to glimpse the man through the window for a few seconds, but he felt like he could see what type of person he was. Curly hair. A necklace of some kind. In the absence of a complete picture, his mind filled in the gaps, and an image came to mind of the man flaring his large nostrils and taking on the appearance of a pig. The driver’s eyes were vacant and beady, and his mouth curled into a vindictive grimace, with the few remaining teeth yellow and brown. Maybe the retreat would have a late start. He scanned dissociated fragments of the email on his phone and looked up every few seconds, in case some abrupt traffic crisis required his attention.
By the time he arrived to the parking lot his coffee had cooled enough to chug. He imagined a room of still bodies and serene smiles, and someone on a pedestal who spoke to them in cryptic metaphysical suggestions. He pressed the key fob twice and when his car made the two shrill beeps he felt a pang of immediate regret, as he now imagined the crowd of still bodies cringing, and looking amongst themselves with near-telepathic communication. He was speed walking to the conference center and it did not help that he was out of breath – he was sure they would know that he was the car horn culprit; the owner of the carbon-emitting automobile, obsessed with his property rights.
Inside, a woman at a foldout card table smiled and waved to him. There was a votive candle burning on the table in the hall next to a sign in sheet.
“I’m so sorry I’m late.”
She gave a demure smile, put her finger to her lips and then pointed towards a sign that read “We practice noble silence.” That’s right. He had read something about this while driving. He felt shaky; the coffee had been too strong, and he was glad he did not have to speak because he had forgotten to brush his teeth and could smell his breath. He signed his name and gave her the confirmation number, and she motioned for him to grab a small round pillow from the pile on the floor and follow her to the conference room. There were between twenty and thirty people facing the front where a robed figure sat with military posture; he could not read her name tag. The room had no windows and he noted the dark ambience of the space with its multitude of candles and narrow rugs to delineate sections, and several statues of the Buddha. He remembered the feeling of coming into the spa for the first time, and the calm energy of the lobby , perhaps arranged according to Feng Shui principles. That was before he became accustomed to the place, and the exoticism of the statues and ornaments became just another aspect of his daily routine on which to focus his discontent.
He once got to go in the storage closet, which contained a few identical ornaments, collecting dust. There were also some Ganeshes and a Shiva hiding back there after the all-white staff had received a complaint that it was tacky to mix Hindu and Buddhist decor, and according to survey data, there was a better market for the latter in this zip code anyway. Many of the statues and ornaments had serial numbers, and he realized that these were mass-produced, rather than handcrafted one-of-a-kinds. Everything was mass-produced: rugs, tables, televisions, phones. There was nothing mysterious or transcendental about these items, and since there was no denying the ornaments’ parity on this same material plane, he came to see the Buddhas and salt crystals as gaudy counterfeits, though a part of him yearned to recapture the initial feeling they had evoked.
He was relieved that none of the heads turned back towards him as the woman led him to a spot in the last row. He knelt by a balding, serious-looking man with a large nose who looked like he was smelling milk to see if it had spoiled. He tried his best to copy the man’s posture and sitting strategy, positioning his butt high up on the pillow and tucking his legs underneath him. Someone played a Tibetan singing bowl, and he tried to focus his attention on the metallic whirring, which when he closed his eyes sounded like an old machine whose insides were slow and malfunctioning.
The spa’s Pandora radio station would often play tracks that included a singing bowl. Genna sometimes came in with a migraine, and in contrast to her usual mellow demeanor, she would warn that if she had to hear any more of the ethereal synthesizer tracks or loud echoing footsteps in the lobby then she might just lose her fucking shit. He remembered one time when he had offered her the aspirin he kept in his car, but she jutted her chin forward and her tone of voice changed as she refused, since Western medicine was toxic. The doctor her dad sent her to had tried to force her to go on unnecessary supplements for vitamin deficiencies, funded by big-pharma, but she avoided anything non-organic, and every day she made a point of consuming rose water that had been vortexed and magnetized to a higher energy vibration for maximum cleansing properties.
The singing bowl stopped now and the robed woman at the front spoke for a few minutes at a time in a gentle lulling voice, guiding them to pay attention to all components of the breath and any changes in the body that occurred while focusing. Afterwards they sat for an indeterminate amount of time, and the main change he noticed was that his legs were falling asleep underneath him and his lower back was starting to hurt. He tried shifting positions, and he also tried waiting it out, but it seemed the pins and needles sensation in his legs only intensified. The more he thought about his breath the more he seemed to forget his natural rhythm – either the exhale or inhale would be too long and he would have to gasp for air. His stomach was rumbling; the cereal this morning had not been enough, and despite being calorie deprived, his throat constricted and he winced at the intermittent taste of acid reflux mixed with coffee. He felt sharp pains in his intestines from the flatulence he was holding in; the pressure was building and would only get worse.
Most of all, he worried about his legs and if there was potential for permanent nerve damage since his feet were now numb. He had already fidgeted enough;, and fear of embarrassment left him feeling paralyzed, as if any further adjustments were a sign of spiritual failure and hopelessness. The robed woman told them all to just stay with the moment and embrace any negative sensations rather than try to run from them.
He experienced overwhelming relief whenever he opened his eyes and he noticed that for just a moment his senses seemed heightened as colors were more vibrant, and angles looked sharper, but he was worried that he would miss the experience if he left his eyes open. He was entering the early stages of buyer’s remorse, but he tried to fight back the intrusive cost-benefit analyses because aside from impressing Genna, he did want to transform. He closed his eyes and tried to be still like a patient hunter, and as the colors behind his eyelids failed to morph into anything interesting, he thought about which parts of himself would be altered by a spiritual experience. He knew that afterwards he would feel more comfortable with flirting, and his mind wandered to Genna and her sweaty pits full of thick brown hair. He could often smell her from seven or eight feet away. She once mentioned in casual conversation how much quitting animal products, and becoming an almost total fruitarian, had improved her natural body odor. She used a natural deodorant of frankincense and myrrh, but he wished that she didn’t use any, and imagined being smothered by her unadulterated scent, as though he were huffing gas from a paper bag. He would just run his nose along her breasts, taking in her pungent musk, moving nice and slow. Then the possible nerve damage in his legs shook him from the fantasy, and he again imagined how he would cope as a double amputee.
He had the urge to check his phone; without it he felt dissociated outside of time, unable to gauge how close they were to the scheduled mindful walk to the cafeteria. At last a bell rang. He glanced around, curious if there had been anyone else who had experienced these excruciating hours with as much difficulty and dysphoria as he had. The man with the large nose next to him had a smug grin and his face looked drained of all tension, as if he had just received a blowjob.
For the walking meditation he assumed his place in the line of people moving as slow as possible, in order to catalogue every movement and sensation involved in a single footstep. He breathed easier as his balance returned and the tingling subsided, and he felt assured that it was now reasonable to rule out permanent nerve damage. Thanks to the slight breeze outside it was also safe enough to release the painful flatulence as he walked. The sunshine felt so good on his skin that he felt an urge to just stay in the warmth. He considered leaving, doubtful that he was having the idyllic experience that had been marketed on the workshop’s homepage. He could still tell Genna that it had been a transformative experience, and she would be none the wiser, however he had already paid for the meal.
In the cafeteria he followed the leader’s suggestion, and struggled to observe his acute desire for food rise like a wave, and then notice, without judgment, his morbid thoughts. It could have been the usual blood-sugar-induced mood swing, but he was hoping that it was at least a little bit of enlightenment. He thought to himself that perhaps there was some consolation in the fact that life was heading nowhere and that this was neither good nor bad. Compared to his peers, he was a failure by all of the usual social metrics but that didn’t mean anything – he was okay with being a loser. His dreams were just things that made him feel bad – for example, he had wanted to learn Spanish for years so that he could save money and travel through Mexico, but learning Spanish was hard and he was bad at budgeting, and the longer he breathed oxygen without having accomplished this goal the more he hated himself. He remembered how relieved he felt when he gave up on that dream, and he suddenly wished he could give up all of his dreams. In that moment he knew that, in all likelihood, Genna would never sleep with him. Fuck her and her fruit, he thought to himself.
With the kind of slow and deliberate speech one might direct towards children, the robed woman honored the group’s intent in promoting justice with sustainable farming practices, the compassion of a diet which minimizes the suffering of other sentient beings, the importance of the nutrients in the vegetables stocked on the buffet line, and the tastes and textures which people often miss in our fast paced society. He observed his thought that she was a cheapskate for encouraging them not to eat too much of the food they had paid for, and then he loaded his plate with a giant mound of potatoes and garlic, steamed kale, and curried carrot salad. Sitting down at one of the tables, he noticed that his portion size was larger than everyone else’s. Just like with the walking, they ate as if they were playing a game to see who could go the slowest. There was a middle-aged woman, who may have been struggling with an eating disorder or chemotherapy, who seemed to be winning. He ate at his usual pace, savoring the crunch of the carrots, and the mild bite of some kind of chili pepper, and finished his plate in just a few minutes. Then he went for seconds.
On the way back to the main building they walked across the grassy courtyard in a line. He spotted a bench on the other side of the courtyard and nobody seemed to look up from their own footsteps as he deserted. The metal was hot when he sat down. He watched, detached, until the rest of the meditators disappeared, moving in their awkward line like a slow motion chain gang. Now that he had eaten he found it easier to settle into a comfortable silence, and he looked at the clouds for some time, picking out the shapes of animals: an alligator, a rabbit, a shark, a man that transformed into something else – a pig? Like the man in the truck with the confederate flag? Nothing drastic is going to happen. How stupid, he thought to himself, there are no cosmic signs. Besides, the cloud now looked more like a distorted anteater with duck feet.
On the way to his car he noticed something in the grass, and when he stopped to watch he saw that it was the movement of hundreds or thousands of ants swarming over a pathetic submissive lump. He kneeled to watch as a dead robin stared off into space, ants crawling over its eyes and into its open mouth, the trails of ants making their way to the new attraction. He thought of the other meditators, crawling around like ants, moving in their slow rigid lines, changing their life direction based on forces they didn’t understand: social caste, genetic tendencies, pheromones, random chance. He noticed that this was different than his usual habituated thought patterns; perhaps it was the beginning of some awakening. Just then he felt a tingling itch. He looked down to see an ant crawling up his shin and disregarded his immediate instinct to smash it. Then he smashed it anyway.
On the way home, traffic merged to one lane on the interstate, and he saw ambulance lights in his rearview mirror and wondered if someone had died. It comforted him to think that everyone would be dead someday, as if he were united with prehistoric civilizations by the same sad truths. He turned up the radio; a doctor was explaining to some icy interviewer about a brain surgery that went wrong. The patient had developed a neuropathic itch on their head afterwards that continued to get worse and worse. The scratching consumed his daily existence, and he even scratched at his head in his sleep and would wake in the morning to bloody pillows. The wound had festered, and an aggressive bacterial infection had softened the bone matter so that one night he was able to scratch all the way into the cortex. Both the doctor and the interviewer’s voices were dull and monotonous, and he began to think about Genna, and how pointless it was to think about her, like an itch that would only worsen his pain.
It would have been nice to stop imagining himself as a suave romantic, saying exactly the right thing at the right time, with just the right amount of suggestion in his voice; on the futon in his living room, asking if she wouldn’t mind if he could just smell her, burying himself in the depths of her sweaty arm bush to get as close as he could to the source of her intoxicating stench, nobody saying a goddamn thing about food or homeopathy. Arriving home, he waited in his car for the throbbing erection to diminish and wondered where else he could apply, other than Pizza Hut. Then, with a heavy exhale, he stepped out and hit the lock button on the key fob, making sure that he heard the two shrill beeps before heading inside.
John Magee is a graduate of Appalachian State University, where he earned his MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in 2016. He lives with his partner in Asheville, NC, and currently works as a licensed counselor and clinical addiction specialist in a rural mental health agency. John also teaches a meditation class once per week. He has no previous publications.