A short story
Finally back in her hotel room, Claire kicked off her shoes and sat down at the little table. She put her feet on the edge of the bed. It had been a long day and everything ached. Her feet hurt from being pushed into business shoes all day, and her neck was cramped from sleeping on the plane. Her right hand reached up to rub it, and she rolled her head, pressing her fingers into the tight cord at the back edge of her neck.
“Levator scapulae.” The words popped into her head involuntarily as her fingers rubbed back and forth across the muscle fibers.
She looked at the pile of business cards she had dumped onto the table. Every handshake brought a card, and after her presentation at the plenary session, it seemed like she had collected hundreds.
A lavender card near the bottom of the the heap caught her eye and she pulled it out. This one had been in her pocket when she left Chicago. The logo was a triangle, and scrawled across it, words that said “Meg’s: Soak, steam, sauna. Women only since 1996.”
When she said she was heading to the conference in Santa Barbara, one of the other associate professors had flipped it onto her desk. Claire knew her colleague was also lesbian, although she tried to stay out of the personal lives of the women in her department.
“I went to graduate school in California and this old lover of mine opened a women’s bath house in Santa Barbara,” the woman said.
Claire cringed inwardly at her co-worker’s casual use of the word “lover”.
“It’s a nice place and you’ll feel comfortable,” she continued. “You look like you could use a break. Might as well make the most of this trip.”
Claire turned the card over. “Make a reservation and tell Meg I sent you” was inked on the back.
Claire looked at the clock. It was after 8 p.m. Most of the conference crowd had headed out to dinner after the cocktail reception. She was worn out, and had come back to her room, thinking a hot bath and an early night would be just the thing. She walked into the bathroom and eyed the small, shallow tub and the vinyl shower curtain. The bathroom lights were bright enough for dissection. She flipped them off and the room became pitch black. There was nothing in between.
A moment passed as she thought about her choices, then she stalked back to the table and picked up the card. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she dialed the phone.
“Meg’s,” a voice answered.
“I’d like to make a reservation,” Claire said.
“For a tub room or a massage?’ the voice asked.
“Can I get a massage tonight?”
“No. I’m sorry. We book our last appointments at 8 p.m.”
“How about a tub room then?”
“I can do that if you get right over here,” the voice said.
“Is this Meg?” Claire asked.
There was a pause. “It is. Do we know each other?”
“No,” Claire said. “But Kat Donnelly said I should say she sent me when I made my reservation.”
There was a low chuckle. “She did, did she? How do you know Kat?”
“I work with her in Chicago. She gave me your card.”
“Well, then. Take your time. Any friend of Kat’s is a friend of mine.”
Claire threw a few things in a bag, slipped her shoes back on, shrugged into her suit jacket, and headed out the door. Always cautious, she rattled the doorknob of her hotel room three times before striding down the hall to the elevators.
As it turned out, Meg’s was just a short ride away.
The cab pulled up in front of a low building, surrounded by a cedar fence. A pair of twisted juniper bushes guarded either side of a Japanese moon gate at the entrance. A small plaque on the gate said simply “Meg’s”.
Claire passed through the gate and followed the wooden walkway. The noise of the street softened behind her, and she was aware of the gurgling of water, and crossing a small stream. She opened the door and stepped inside.
Even in the lobby, the air was warm and humid. The air smelled like cedar and other things Claire couldn’t quite identify.
The woman at the counter was helping another customer, a woman with wet hair, dressed in cozy sweat clothes.
“Oh, it was great Meg. Thank Terry again for the massage. My back feels better already.”
Claire looked down self-consciously at her black dress and jacket, and at her black pumps. Even though not very high-heeled, she felt formally conspicuous next to this relaxed patron in sweats and flip-flops.
The woman behind the counter turned toward Claire, fixing on her. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“I called a little while ago. I’m Claire from Chicago.”
“Ah. Come here then.”
The damp-haired woman passed her as she approached the counter, giving her a curious look before heading out the door.
Meg was a big woman with broad shoulders. Her dark hair was cut close to her head, with bangs that fell down over her forehead, like a schoolboy’s. She wore a tight black t-shirt and loose jeans. Claire couldn’t help but notice that her eyes were an arresting dark blue.
“So you’re Kat’s friend?”
“Co-worker. We were hired at the same time as assistant professors.”
“I see,” Meg said. “Are you in biology too?”
“Comparative anatomy,” Claire said.
“Are you and Kat…?” Meg’s voice fell away and she gave a meaningful tilt to her head.
“Oh no,” Claire said. “We don’t really socialize much, we just have offices in the same hall.”
Claire smoothed her hair behind her ears nervously.
“She used to live here,” Meg said.
“That’s what she said.”
“Did she say anything else?” Meg asked.
Claire suddenly felt like she was being called in front of the class to answer a question. She looked down at the counter.
“She said you were an ex of hers.”
Again, the low chuckle she had heard on the phone.
“That’s one way of putting it. That didn’t shock you?”
“No,” said Claire. “Kat’s always upfront like that. At least more so than I am.”
“What does that mean?” Meg asked.
“Well, you know. Out. I’m not closeted, but since I’m not partnered, no one seems to give my personal life any thought. And, I guess I don’t offer them much to think about.”
Again, Meg fixed her with an appraising gaze. “I see,” she said. “Let’s get you to a tub room.”
She parted a cloth curtain printed with flying cranes. “Follow me.”
They walked down a dim hallway. The floor was covered with thick carpeting and, except for the low flute music that seemed to float on the air throughout the building, it was quiet.
Meg stopped in front of a doorway. “This is our Bay Laurel Room,” she said. “it’s my favorite.”
“It’s so quiet here,” Claire whispered.
Meg spoke in a low voice but stopped short of whispering. “We close at 9 p.m. on weeknights. You’re our last customer. Terry is finishing a massage, but you’re the last person in the spa.”
Meg pushed the door open and Claire gasped. “It’s so beautiful. I had no idea.”
The walls and floor of the room were covered in pale jade green tiles. A bubbling hot tub was built into a cedar platform, and shoji panels slid open to look over a Japanese-style garden lit by stone lanterns. Claire could see koi in the garden’s pond, just under the water’s surface.
“If it’s too cold in here, I can close the sliders,” Meg said.
“No, no. Please leave them open. The garden is so pretty and it makes me feel like I’m on an exotic vacation.”
“Aren’t you on vacation?” Meg asked.
“No. I’m just here speaking at a conference. I’m only staying tonight. I have to fly out tomorrow evening. It’s so fast, I’ll barely know I was gone.”
“Well, that’s no fun,” Meg said. “But maybe this will make it better. We’ll be around late this evening, doing some maintenance. You hang out as long as you’d like. Like I said, any friend of Kat’s is a friend of ours.”
She gave Claire a quick tour of the amenities, including how to operate the sauna. Then she opened a cabinet and removed several candles, placing them around the room.
“I only do this for special guests, after hours,” she said. “Fire marshall’s rules.”
After lighting them, she dimmed the room lights and poured Claire a cup of tea, handing it to her with a slight bow at the waist. “This is our house blend. It’s supposed to be relaxing and a little euphoric, but it’s all herbal.”
The tea smelled heavenly.
Meg walked over to the tub and bent down to check the temperature. As she reached for the thermometer, her t-shirt slipped up and the waistband of her pants slid down a little, revealing a black leather belt with studs, around her hips, under her clothes. There was no mistaking it for anything but a harness.
Claire felt her stomach flip a little.
“If you need anything, there are bell buttons around the room,” Meg said, pointing them out. “Either Terry or I will be happy to bring you more tea, towels… anything you need.”
Claire’s gaze involuntarily dropped down to the front of Meg’s jeans and the bulge there.
Her eyes jumped back up to the woman’s face. Meg looked like she was stifling a smile.
“No. This is great, thanks.”
Meg slipped out of the room, closing the door softly behind her.
Claire unfastened her necklace and watch and dropped them in her jacket pocket. She hung her jacket on a hook and slipped out of her shoes, placing them on a low shelf for that purpose. She peeled off her stockings and stuffed them into one of her shoes. Then reaching behind her head, she began to unzip her sleeveless dress. The zipper suddenly stopped.
“Shit,” Claire said, struggling with it behind her back. She pulled up gently and felt it move a little, then tried again to ease the zipper down. Again, it stopped. It was caught at that awkward point where she couldn’t quite reach it over her shoulders, and couldn’t reach it with her arms behind her back. “Shit, shit,” she said.
The dress wasn’t tight, but it was cut in a hourglass shape, and the still-zipped waist wouldn’t allow her to pull the dress down over her hips, or shimmy it up over her head. She had no choice but to call for help. She reach for the bell and had a sip of tea while she waited.
Within two minutes there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” Claire said.
Meg looked puzzled when she saw her there, still wearing the black sheath dress.
“My zipper’s stuck,” Claire said.
Meg smiled broadly. “I think I can help with that. Turn around.”
Claire turned, feeling the other woman’s presence behind her.
“Here,” Meg said. “Hold the top of the zipper closed so it lies flat.”
Claire did as she was told. She felt Meg toying with the zipper, working it up and down.
“Damn. This thing is really caught,” Meg said. “I don’t want to break it.”
“You can pull a little harder,” Claire said. “I have a different dress to wear tomorrow and if it breaks, I’ll get it repaired when I get home.”
“Okay,” Meg said. “You asked for it.”
Claire put her hand against the wall to brace herself. Meg drew the zipper up, almost to the neckline, and jerked it back down again. There was a hitch and then the zipper slid down freely, below the line of Claire’s panties. The back of the dress fell open.
“Wow,” Meg said. “That’s one hell of a tattoo. I didn’t expect that from you, professor.”
“It’s usually private,” Claire said, a little embarassed. She felt Meg’s fingertip tracing the waves on her skin, and running along the serpent on her low back.
“This is some piece of art,” Meg said. “I like this part right here.” The palm of her hand pressed against Claire’s waist, and involuntarily, Claire shuddered.
They both froze for a moment, each waiting for a signal from the other.
“Is this okay?” Meg asked, sliding her hand around Claire’s waist, under her dress, and pressing it against the skin of her belly.
“Yes,” Claire said softly. She leaned back against Meg, back against her soft t-shirt and back against the hard bulge in her jeans.
“Would you like me to unfasten your bra while I’m here?” Meg asked.
Meg unhooked the fasteners and took a step back and pushed the dress and the bra straps off Claire’s shoulders in one motion. The dress and her bra pooled on the floor.
“I’ll hang these up,” Meg said. “Why don’t you get into the tub?”
Self-conscious and aware of her nudity, Claire slipped into the tub while Meg’s back was turned.
Meg poured her some more tea and placed the cup near the edge of the tub.
“I’ll ask Terry to get you some more,” she said, and reached for the bell.
Almost immediately, there was a soft knock at the door.
“Come in,” Meg said.
If Terry was surprised to see Meg in the room, she didn’t let on.
“What can I do for you?”
“We could use some more tea.”
Terry was younger than Meg, and slighter in build. She was ropey, with the forearms of someone who worked with her hands all day. She was wearing a white t-shirt and khaki shorts. She gave the two of them a knowing smile.
While she was out of the room, Meg squatted down by the edge of the tub.
“Would you mind if Terry joined us?”
“I think you’d like her. She’s great with her hands.”
Claire thought of her sterile hotel room, and of her office back in Chicago, desk covered with unread papers. She thought of the cutting wind that assaulted her on the street. She looked through the steam, out over the warm, still garden, glowing in the night.
“You said I looked like I could use a vacation, right?”
“Right,” Meg said. “I think Terry and I could take you on one.”
At that moment Terry came back into the room, carrying the teapot.
“Would you like to hang out with us for a while and wind down?” Meg asked. “You’ve been at it all day. I mean, if it’s all right with Claire.”
Terry looked at Claire, waiting for her response.
“I’m a friend of Meg’s friend Kat in Chicago.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” Terry grinned. “Is it okay if I get in the tub?”
“Let me grab some more towels,” Meg said.
Terry pulled off her t-shirt, revealing a flat belly and small, compact breasts with dark nipples. She stepped out of her shorts and tossed them aside, then slid into the water across from Claire.
Meg had changed into a cotton kimono while she was out of the room. She set a huge stack of towels down on the platform. “There’s enough that we can spread them out,” she said, grinning. Claire saw her set the leather harness down on a bench near the towels. “I thought we might need this later.”
Meg untied the robe and stepped down into the tub. She reached for Claire’s foot and began to massage it.
“Oh, god, that feels good,” Claire said. She felt Terry move alongside her.
“Here, Claire. Just float on your back and I’ll massage your neck in the water,” Terry said. “Meg will have your legs and feet, so you won’t sink. I think you’ll like it.”
With Terry encouraging her, Claire fell back and floated, her breasts and belly rising into the steam. She could hear the bubbling of the jets under the water, and all other sounds were blocked out. Terry’s strong hands supported her shoulders and the back of her neck, her fingertips beginning to probe the tight muscles there. Meg’s hands held both her feet, thumbs working into the arches.
Claire moaned as the women worked with expertise on the most tense and sore parts of her body, turning her in the warm water, sometimes holding her limbs, and sometimes floating her with the lightest touch. She drifted in and out, hanging right at the edge of sleep. The two women began to rock her gently, first like waves on the seashore, and then faster, until finally they were vibrating her relaxed body back to life. Meg gently set her feet back on the floor of the tub and Terry supported her as Claire stood in the chest-deep water.
“That was amazing. I really do feel like I was away on vacation.”
“That was just the first part of the trip,” Meg said, climbing out of the tub, and beginning to spread a thick layer of towels on the deck.
Terry took Claire by the hand and led her out of the water. She wrapped her in a towel and sat down by Meg. She patted the space next to her.
“Come sit with us, Claire. The night is still so young.”
Claire could see the edge of the moon beginning to rise above the garden wall. There was the far-off flute music, and the song of a cricket in the garden. The candles flickered in the cedar-scented steam as Claire lowered herself into the waiting arms of the two women. And just like that, the work and wind of Chicago began to fall away.