Places That Don’t Exist by Caroline Swicegood

The apples of his cheeks are pink like pansies, and his lips shine like rosy oyster shells in the midst of his dark beard. He closes his eyes as Shana brings handful after handful of cloudy, turquoise water out of the thermal bath and over his head. He peeks them open to look into hers as she slicks his hair back and rubs his temples. They have a private room—maybe eight feet by eight feet, all swirling gray marble and gold faucets—with a tiny window cracked open at the top of one wall. Outside, snow falls lightly, and kids splash and shout from the big communal pool, also naturally heated. Their hands sometimes lazily roam about underwater, feeling scandalous so close to the public. Mostly, though, they just breathe in the steam and feel the grit of the minerals in the water and touch one another’s slick, hot faces, pinching pansy-pink cheeks and smoothing sweating brows.

As much as she’s tried to train her ear, she still can’t tell Eastern European languages apart from one another. She has gone through this trip assuming that everyone is speaking Czech, but a lot of people are tourists and foreigners like them, and he points out her ignorance in the airport, hotels, spas: Did you hear that couple speaking Hungarian? and, Huh, those taxi drivers were speaking Ukrainian, I guess they immigrated because of the war, and sometimes even, Our waitress has a thick Bulgarian accent when she speaks Czech, I wonder how long she’s been here. It seems impossible to her to actually be able to tell the difference between such things, but he’s rarely wrong and never about things like that.

They’re so far away from home. There were layovers in Heathrow and Frankfurt, gathering passport stamps side by side in customs lines—her firsts and his millionths. She slept with her head against his shoulder in cramped airplane seats. They switched spots, and he slept as the sun rose and she stared out the window at the indistinguishable green masses below, imagining their plane passing over countries like the clip-art map shown at the front of the cabin. She never, for one second, thought they would go this far, that things would get this far.

He says he needs a break and gets out, wraps a white towel around his waist sauna-style and sits on the marble ledge running along one wall and leans back. His eyes are closed again, so she doesn’t feel shy about hanging over the edge of the bath and watching him. Her mind shifts to imagining him sitting on a bed instead. The bed has a white comforter and a bright brass frame. It’s old and squeaks a little when he moves, but that’s okay. The room where this bed is located has dark wood floors and a big, open window where gauzy, blue curtains—the same light shade as the thermal water—blow in the pleasant breeze. A hand-stitched quilt—where have I seen it before? She squints, trying to remember—is folded neatly at the foot of the bed.

The bedroom doesn’t exist but she wishes it did. It’s where she wants to live, with him. The image is random, not rooted in a previous place or experience, but it showed up and stuck. The fantasy grows, sometimes expands to a living room—this space less crisp, a bit more ill-defined than the bedroom—with charmingly tattered furniture, shelves full of their books, abstract paintings on the wall, his hands on her future round belly. She’s ashamed to imagine that last one, especially, although she’s thirty-two and thinks it’s normal to think about it, just perhaps not with someone she knows will never want it.

She stretches out in the bath. There are two faucets—one hot, one cold. The cold one leaks slowly and steadily, disappearing unnoticed into the steaming water, and she reaches out her hand, lets the icy drops hit her palm and shudders at the shocking contrast. He’s watching her now, and smiling. He takes off the towel and comes over, lowers himself into the bath, and pulls her towards him to rest back against his chest. She closes her eyes. There is a little antechamber connected to the private bath where their bags and clothes hang on hooks, and inside his bag are two train tickets to Venice, because when he mentioned they’d have time after the conference and asked her where in Europe she always dreamed of going, that was her answer; because he’s the type of person who reserves a private bath in Prague in the midst of a work trip and takes delight in making your European dream come true, the kind who lets you sleep on his shoulder until sunrise and then changes seats with you so you can look out the window in the daylight, one who can tell the difference between imperceptibly disparate Slavic languages on first listen. He is not the kind of person to settle on antique bed springs for any real period of time or let his crow’s feet deepen from a couch with a pregnant wife.

She can’t blame him for something she always knew. She relaxes against him; the bath is silent except for the cold drip from the faucet, and the bedroom—so beautiful, it’s a shame it doesn’t exist—will remain empty.

 

BostonCommons
CAROLINE SWICEGOOD is an American writer and educator living in Istanbul, Turkey. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Bird’s Thumb, Upstreet, and Prick of the Spindle, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Literary Bohemian. Her writing typically focuses on travel and identity, particularly identity that comes from the meeting of cultures. She is currently working on a book manuscript of loosely connected short stories and vignettes set in Venice.

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