Thursday 21 March 2024

Too Close by Elise Glassman, pisco sour

How had they ended up in this strange little town?
    Well, their friends had raved about it. A must-see, they insisted, with glorious mineral springs and an adorable brewery. She’d been doubtful. She and her partner were city people, they went to museums and shows, not on rural vacations, and certainly not the germy soup of a public Southwestern hot springs. But the friends, early Microsoft retirees, were persuasive. They traveled well, knew the best beaches in Costa Rica, whose Mediterranean yacht had an available cabin, which swanky supper club might seat two more. Saying no might put a strain on future socializing, mark them somehow as inferior friends, so they agreed: they’d make a quick stop, spend the night, post photos, keep it moving.

      They arrived on a windy afternoon, too early to check into their Airbnb, so she drove their rental car along a two-lane street through town, took a dogleg to the right and parked beside a river. “Look, it’s the Rio Grande.”
    “The Rio Grande,” her partner echoed. “Wow.”
    They got out into warm sun, the grass smelling of dry hay, the river water rippling along low vegetal banks. She felt a small thrill. It was a legendary river, wasn’t it? At least it was in the black-and-white Westerns she watched as a kid with her dad; Hollywood fantasies of a time and place she knew now had never really existed, of virtuous, strong-jawed lawmen and hardy white women and freckle-faced kids learning life lessons.
    Finally, check-in time. They gazed out at the Airbnb, an elderly stucco cottage with a sagging porch. “Jeez, I hope it’s norm core,” she said doubtfully.
    “Maybe.” He lifted luggage and groceries from the trunk while she retrieved the keys.     Inside, the house smelled okay and passed the fingertip test. They walked through a bright yellow kitchen and past a narrow bathroom. He hefted her suitcase into the larger bedroom and dragged his down the hall to a smaller one. They hadn’t slept together much on this trip, due to snoring (his) and insomniac restlessness (hers). She missed him, missed his adjacent warmth. But the chainsaw rattle of his sinuses always drove her away.
     Her stomach growled so she went to the kitchen to evaluate the snack situation and found him studying the house binder, the four single-space pages devoted to tub operations. “I guess we should try a soak?” She’d never gotten in a mineral tub before, and this wasn’t an inexpensive rental. She wanted to get her money’s worth.
    “I guess so.”
    So they performed the complex series of steps, each showering, then donning bathing suits, then opening the mineral tub valve to rinse, warm, and fill the chunky concrete tub. “It’s definitely a homemade job,” she smirked, sinking into steaming water up to her chin.
    “For sure homemade,” he agreed.
    Clouds had scudded in overhead, obscuring the weak winter sun. She tried to enjoy the delicious warmth, to forget about the sad little back yard, the cracked patio and shriveled plants. Then, frowning, she opened her eyes. “What is that sound?” It was a constant, breathy sigh, like the thrum of crickets. A sound she associated with Midwestern summers and her grandfather’s singed lawn.
    “What is it?” He was looking around, too.
    “It sounds like doves? Cooing?” She squinted, but all she saw was leafless branches.
    “It does sound like doves.”
    Then where the hell were they? And was she a terrible person, finding such an objectively poetic sound annoying? The sound felt oppressive. It felt like beady little eyes were observing them. Waiting for – well, what? It wasn’t like there were vultures up there circling.
    The friends had raptured about leisurely soaks but they stayed in just long enough to braise their goose flesh, then dashed inside to shower again and shiver by the gas fireplace.
    For dinner, he offered to cook tostadas with frozen Hatch chiles they’d bought in Las Cruces. Her job was defrosting, and she watched the frozen logs circle in the microwave, waiting for the tender moment between done and explosion. “Was it me or was the shower not very hot?”
    “Not hot,” he confirmed, turning on the stove burner. “Or maybe we were just really cold.”
    Opening the microwave, she poked at a rigid chile. “These are still frozen. Can we put ‘em in the hot pan and I’ll find another pan for tortillas?”
    “Throw ‘em in the hot pan,” he said agreeably.
    While the chiles warmed, she searched the cupboards for a second pan but found only mismatched plates, earthenware bowls and mugs and a cutting board. Whatever. She’d wait and wash out his pan when he was done. But the water went abruptly cold as she started to rinse. “Dang it.”
    Again they consulted the binder. “Please Be Gentle!!” the hot water section was titled. Reading over her shoulder, the dense pages of instructions and photos, he sighed, “Oh, dang.”
    “I want all the beer,” she said.
    “Oh we’re getting all the beer.”
    In the end they’d thrown the chile pan in the sink and headed to the brewery. The friends had enthused about it too, the crisp beers, the fire pit, the camaraderie with locals. But the cavernous space reminded her of a VFW hall. A mustached bartender was in deep conversation with a woman in a biker vest and cap. The wooden booths sat mostly empty, the tables speckled with dried beer glass rings.
    The bartender leaned out of his conversation. “What can I get ya?”
    One IPA, one lager, she requested. “And pizza?” Hot pizza might salvage things.
    “You might can order from Geppetto’s,” he said, explaining the brewery had no kitchen but restaurants in town delivered.
    Now the other customers were looking at them. She felt anxious sweat prickle her armpits. They took their beer to the front patio to enjoy the waning sun. “Should I order a pizza?” he asked and she snapped, “Order a pizza. Please.”
    Sighing, he showed her his phone screen. Closed. The nearby Mexican restaurant, also closed.
    She sipped her beer. It was crisp and quite hoppy. “Did I get your IPA?”
    “Did you?” He handed her his glass.
    She sipped his, tasted the sinus punch of hops, slammed it down so hard the beer slopped out. “Seriously. Is everything in this town a pretend version of the real thing?”
    “You don't need to fix everything,” he said, wiping the spill, but they both knew he was wrong.
    The next morning they soaked again in the tub. It was a warmer day. Nearby a saw buzzed, but its whine did not drown out the ominous cooing. Dripping, she climbed out of the tub. “Where are those damn birds?” Nothing in the yard, the thicket of weeds with irrigation hoses coiled in a corner, seemed capable of sustaining life. Ignoring his feeble consolations (where are they? it’s so strange) she went inside, thrust alternate limbs into the needling cold shower, dressed, shoved aside greasy dishes, and made coffee with Dunkin Donut grounds she’d discovered last night in her cupboard searches.
    Pouring fragrant coffee into mugs, she yelled out the back door, “There’s coffee. I’m going for a walk.”
    He was already toweling off. “I’m coming,” he yelled, even though she stood mere feet away.
    At the curb, they paused to inspect the rental car. It had survived the night with no visible dings. In fact, it glittered like a spangle among old buttons. No one needed to see the California plates to know it didn’t belong. “You hungry? I might have a granola bar in the glove compartment.” Dinner last night had been gas station fare: pistachio brittle, Miller Lite, and Cool Ranch Doritos with soggy chiles.
    “Are you hungry?” he countered.
    She shrugged. “I’ll eat in Albuquerque.”
    So they walked down the main road, passing closed cafes and shuttered art studios and an unshaven guy in a gravel lot, inflating a bicycle tire with a hand pump. At the park by the Rio Grande, her partner clambered around on the rocks while she sipped coffee and took pictures with her phone.
    “Whoa. The sky is amazing.” Her phone’s filter converted the river and the rocky hills and the cloud-streaked sky into a stark, gorgeous landscape.
    “Livin’ the dream, baby!” The unshaven guy flew by on his bicycle.
    “Livin’ the dream!” her partner screamed back, flashing two thumbs up.
    They watched the cyclist continue, going the wrong way on the road out of town. “That sure seems like a metaphor,” she said.
    Laughing, he returned to the sidewalk and grabbed his mug. “The whole place is a metaphor.”
    It was almost checkout time so they started the walk back on a side street, the sidewalk petering out onto parking spots, each occupied by a shiny car with out-of-state plates. “I guess we’re not the only tourists in town,” she mused.
    The cars sat outside a gray, ranch-style building. A lacquered sign, set in a bed of smooth rocks, read, Rio Grande Hot Springs Hotel. Two people in Lycra and fresh sneakers emerged, laughing and sipping from Starbucks cups. Amazing, one said, and the other echoed, Amazing and they climbed into a gleaming SUV.
    As it eased away, a flier rustled in the dry gutter. She picked it up. Deluxe rooms! Private mineral springs tubs! Four-star dining! Ask about off season rates. “I bet they have hot water.” She said it before he could, daring him to question that for the same money or less they could have had hot water and a private tub and beer that tasted of malt and sunshine. Had the friends stayed at this tucked-away jewel? How had she missed it? What was she going to tell them?
    He’d continued his leisurely saunter, already half a block ahead. She hurried to catch up and then, hearing him humming cheerfully, speed-walked past him. She was so angry with him for not being angry, for not hating the sad house, the ineffectual water heater, the ill-furnished kitchen, the binder novella of detail and despair, the tub with its skein of pink mold.
    Then he was running past her, coffee spilling from his mug, puffs of dust kicking up from his sneakered feet. By the time she caught up he was at the house, tub valve open, stripping off his shirt.
    “You go ahead,” she said, when he looked at her, chest heaving. “I’m going to figure out how to wash dishes.” The binder had a long list of check-out tasks. Could she heat tap water on the stove? Run water through the coffee maker?
“We could wash ‘em here.” Grimacing, he pointed at the tub, at the steaming, ankle-deep water.
It wasn’t the worst idea.
Later, sitting on a sunny patio with a small-batch mezcal, she agonized over her Airbnb review. Almost nothing had worked. And yet they’d had an okay time. She’d never forget the weird brewery and dinner of chips and The Champagne of Beers. In the end she posted four-point-five stars and sent the host a private note about the water heater. He immediately messaged back, mentioning the binder, the need to care for the old house, his proximity(??). I was next door all day. I’d have come right over.
She hadn’t known he was so close. But wasn’t the whole point to not be close? What was he even doing next door? Had he heard them cursing, yelling, beating the branches trying to find the source of the goddamned cooing? The hotel would have been the sensible choice. The choice their friends had likely made, their car snugged up to its shiny siblings, dinner on matching china, pleasant soaks in a varnished wood tub, no invisible, sinister doves.
It was a version of their lives, themselves, that she could not quite imagine.

About the author 

Elise Glassman is a neuro-divergent, New Orleans-based writer published by The Colorado Review, Main Street Rag, The Portland Review, and Per Contra. She is as an assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel, and greatly appreciates the time and care you give to submissions.

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