By Mary Purdy
We are standing side by side at the counter when I hear her say, “It’s my birthday today.”
I turn to her and squeal, “It’s my birthday today too! Happy birthday!”
There isn’t much of a response. I think I hear a quick intake of breath, but she doesn’t look at me. I hand over my driver’s license to the woman behind the counter.
“You get half off your entry to the spa today,” she says and I grin in anticipation of this yearly treat I give myself. I can hear my fellow Aquarian having the same conversation with another woman behind the counter.
“I thought it was free on your birthday,” she says.
“Oh, no, we changed that policy last year,” the woman behind the counter responds. As I start to sign the credit card bill for $17.50 I can see the woman next to me exiting the building. I turn to the women behind the counter.
“Is she leaving because she can’t pay?”
“She said she had no money”, one replies.
“Hold on”, I say and hurry out the door to follow her into the parking lot, scarf and gloves left behind, confronting the January winds.
“Miss,” I say. “Miss!”
She turns, eyes swollen, red with liquid.
“Please, let me pay your entrance fee.”
“No” she spouts, “You’re not going to do that. ”
“Please” I continue. “It would make me so happy to do this for you. Really, it’s nothing.”
“No,” she insists. “I can’t. I’m not going to let you do that.” Tears keep coming as she shuffles over to her car, leaving me sandwiched between a truck and an SUV parked just outside of their designated lines.
“Then I’ll be thinking of you today,” I say, my breath forming mist in the air.
“Good. Think of me,” she says frostily, “because I’m dying”. Her dusty brown hair quivers around her face as we stare at one another.
My attempted smile turns into a squint. My good intention punches me in the stomach.
I swallow her words and hesitate before saying. “Then all the more reason to join me today in this beautiful place and let me pay for you.”
She shakes her head, already seated in her car, engine started, exhaust swirling around the vehicle. Her broken voice mutters “No, I’m leaving.”
“Well, then,” I say. “I’m sending you warm wishes.”
“Thank you,” she says. “I appreciate it.” The car door closes and moments later, her parking spot is empty.
I stand there useless, as her words etch themselves into my mind. I turn and walk back into the building to make the most of my $17.50. Her sorrow hangs in the heat of the sauna. Her pain drips onto the ledges of the steam room. Her voice echoes in the bubbles of the whirl pool. I drink gobs of water to fill the hollow and wrap the towel tight around me, a flimsy shield against the inevitable.