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A SEISMIC SHIFT
FUNNY HOW THINGS that change overnight often are years in the making. Earthquakes, for instance. Plates deep beneath the surface move, shift, bump, and grind for eons. All that subterranean action sends up warning tremors, little rumbles that are often too small to notice. Until the big one hits, the one that shatters windows, brings down buildings, and snaps bridges in two.
I am an earthquake.
The first obvious tremblers hit when I corralled my Martini Gang--my sister, my cousin on my mother's side, and my two best girlfriends--into an "authentic" Korean spa for a day of tubs, scrubs, and hot-crystal meditation rooms. I'd read about it in the New York Times months before. It sounded fabulous. Wrangling all of us into the same place at the same time, however, was not so fabulous. It required weeks of intense negotiations. I got less agitated bringing a nonprofit staff and a board of directors into agreement on a radical new fertility policy than I got pulling five of us together. Even for a self-made, headstrong executive director like me, nothing's harder than coordinating type-A women who are overextended with work, children, and some version of a marriage. Especially when it involves them abandoning their homesteads early on a summer Sunday for exotic indulgences beyond the Manhattan city limits in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Beth was the special challenge. Her life had more moving parts than a pinball machine. I knew she had to wrestle with her volatile brood of four adolescent girls, the dog, the garden, the twenty-year marriage, and, of course, the boyfriend. She ran a small, well-curated art gallery and indiscriminately served on do-gooder committees. The two E's were her constants: Erratic schedules and Emergencies.
I maneuvered into a parking space next to Beth's eco-friendly hybrid. She had arrived seconds before me and was leaning against her car, long black hair blowing in the Sahara-like wind, deep in an animated phone conversation. Two minutes later, Vicki--my big sister--pulled in behind me. She had Cousin Sophia, my own personal Italian-Jewish Auntie Mame, in tow. Vicki locked up and they walked over, Sophia carrying off the billowy chiffon top that hid her lovely roundness and made her seem much younger than her sixty-plus years.
"Husband or Kevin?" Vicki asked, raising an artfully shaped eyebrow.
Beth snapped the cell phone shut. Her flushed cheeks were a dead giveaway. I knew that look. I knew everything about her since we were five years old and our mothers made us hold hands the first time we went ice-skating. We haven't let go since. Beth put on oversized shades to hide her obviously teary brown eyes. Loverland isn't always easy.
"Kevin," Vicki and I chorused softly.
"Did you tell Mom what we were doing today?" I asked Vicki while we waited for Beth to compose herself.
"Absolutely not!" Vicki was vehement.
"So neither one of us checked in. . . . That's going to go over really well."
"I coulda been lyin' dead on the floor for all anyone would know. What would it take? One phone call?" Vicki's Mom schtick was dead-on. She was a carbon copy of our mother, right down to the curve of her long, shapely legs.
We burst out laughing.
"Just the idea of your tennis-playing, step-dancing, aquasizing eighty-year- old mother helpless anywhere is just too funny. Aunt Roz would love to be here, a day with the girls," Sophia said.
"Ooh, that would have been perfect. Why didn't I think of that?" I said, my conscience kicking in. "Damn it. I'll call her on the way home and take the hit."
Beth waved her hand to get our attention, as if we weren't standing an unobstructed five feet away. She craned her neck, scouring the crowd. "Let me guess, Olivia's not here yet."
We loitered in the sticky tar parking lot, pale Amazons in a sea of tiny Korean women all headed for the King Spa. Olivia was always punctually ten minutes late. Her computer went down. Her genius twin boys were one chemical com£d away from a patentable cure for carbohydrate cravings. Her petulance-prone lover threatened suicide if she did not leave her husband. Dire or magnificent, the issue always took Olivia an unscheduled ten minutes to resolve. It made her even more exotic than her half-Chinese and half-European Jewish one-of-a-kind beauty. She loved signing her e- mails "xoxo your Chinkajew."
At precisely 10:10, she arrived. She waved a languid hello, parked, and joined us on our pilgrimage past the roasting cars to the bland seventies industrial warehouse. We squeezed in a huddle around the shoulder-high reception desk, firing way too many questions. What exactly is a face- whitening facial? Could we get five salt scrubs at the same time? And the foot reflexology, too? What do you mean these wristbands track what we spend?
"For chrissakes, just pay and go in," snapped the woman behind us. I wheeled around with a ready retort, but then I saw the pileup behind us. The crowd was turning ugly.
"Sorry, sorry. Really sorry," the five of us called to the surging throng, throwing credit cards at the cashier.
In return we were handed the most god-awful gym outfits ever. We went to Dressing Room 1, where we ditched our street clothes and slipped into the mandatory uni-"sexless" Pepto-pink spa wear required for the coed areas. The color didn't work for me, but I was thrilled to feel diminutive in the "one size fits pretty much everyone on earth" getup. The best part--there were no pockets. No pockets meant no cell phones. Nobody--not work, the kids, my husband, or even my mother--could reach me for hours.
A thick glass wall separated the changing area from the bathhouse, a space so beautiful and strange, it stopped us dead in our tracks. It wasn't the immaculate elegance of the glass-and-stone-tile spa that got us. It wasn't the gargantuan hot, cold, and warm tubs; frigid open showers; or the sauna and steam rooms that knocked us out. It was the vision of dozens of naked women squatting at handheld shower stations scrubbing their most intimate anatomy with abandon, washing each other's backs, butts, breasts, and whatnots.
"Whoa! Now, that's different," Beth muttered in my ear. "Did the Times article say anything about that?"
"Looks great!" Vicki said. My brave sister was always up for anything. "Who wants to wash my pits?"
We stripped down to nothing in the locker room. Vicki strutted by with her new, postcancer rebuilt breasts. There was no way I could avoid them or the mortality that hovered over my once-invincible sister. These breasts were huge, two Pamela Anderson-sized mountains with riverbed scars running along their sides and bottoms.
"You could clean up on the strip circuit with those," I said, batting away the powerful combination of awe and upset with a one-liner. It was shocking to see that her breasts dwarfed mine when I had always been at least one cup size bigger, the one thing I inherited from my mother that she didn't.
"Yeah, it's bizarre. Men trip over themselves looking at these babies." Her wan smile turned into an angry pout. "I told that doctor to keep them the way they were. What is it with men? They want every woman to have gigantic hooters; therefore we must want them, too? I hate the surgeon. I told him to keep them small. But no-o-o. Now I'm stuck with these."
"Well, honey, they're magnificent," I soothed her.
"You really think so?" Vicki was still insecure after a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, and a couple of life-threatening infections over the past year. It was a miracle that we were standing here together.
We followed Beth, Sophia, and Olivia through the door to the spa. I lagged behind my sisterhood of four, watching their curvaceous bodies and round asses sway, hands fluttering as they brought each other up to date. I waded slowly into the hottest of the tubs, a large, shallow, blue-tiled pool ringed with at least a dozen women and girls, not one larger than my thigh. I settled near a jet and cooked. One by one, Vicki, Beth, Sophia, and Olivia joined me with the requisite "Argh! It's ho-o-ot. Oh, man! Ahhh, that's good!"
We found five spots together, and chatted about everyday work/kid stuff. This was always the prelude to the heavier subjects.
"You be quiet here. This peaceful place." A deep voice made us leap like startled fish. A burly bathhouse attendant loomed over us, her eyes stern with authority. "And you! You put up your hair!" She thrust rubber bands at Olivia, Beth, and me. Resentfully, Olivia piled her chestnut hair into a messy bun on top of her head; Beth and I followed her lead. Hair up, voices down. That lasted for about thirty seconds.
"Ya think we stand out enough?" Vicki said in her best Bronx honk. What didn't she inherit from our mother?
"Nah, we blend right in," I countered, glancing down at my ample C-cup breasts bobbing, cocking my head at the training bra-sized boobs of the dozen other boiling women and their offspring.
"One wrong move and my butt could cause some serious injury. I never saw so many small-boned people," Beth whispered.
"Maybe we should find a quieter corner," Olivia suggested. She looked me over as I stood up. "We sure have come a long way since I first interviewed you all those years ago. I'm so relieved I'm off the fertility beat. It broke my heart every time I produced one of those segments."
"At least you got me out of it," I answered. "Didn't that make working in daytime TV worthwhile?"
"So totally," she giggled, splashing water at me.
We trooped over to the uninhabited tepid tub, plunging back into the conversation the second we settled.
For me, it was an extension of the daily check-ins I had with Vicki and Olivia. Sophia called once every week or two. Beth was a different story altogether. We talked somewhere between two and fifty times a day, as we had for decades. It was like my ear had sprouted a blinking Bluetooth. I talked while doing the laundry, getting fresh produce, or trekking from fertility centers to pharmaceutical companies, making the fertility patient advocacy pitch. We craved the connection that some scientists say is a uniquely feminine thing. I think it's just human.
I was ready with my "back on Atkins--I have to lose sixty £ds--women are so screwed" rap when Beth usurped my place.
"I got the most amazing head last week," she burst out, totally smug.
Oh no she didn't! She'd switched up the order of our traditional agenda: weight and body image first, then sex. I looked to Sophia to put a stop to this. She was, after all, the grande dame of the group, our resident moderator. She rolled her eyes but didn't rescue me.
"Let me guess. It was Kevin. I'll bet my last paycheck it wasn't Larry," I snapped, my guts in a sudden uproar. This was a sex-talk ambush. I had to warm up before I could listen to her gush about the unbridled pleasure of her lover working away between her legs. I needed conversational foreplay. Beth met Kevin over free-range eggs at a food co-op a couple of years ago. Who knew organic groceries were an aphrodisiac? I'd been listening to her talk about him every day since. I saw him once getting out of a car, and that was close enough for me. None of us wanted to socialize with anybody's lover. It was enough to talk about them in excruciating detail.
Besides, it wasn't about a particular lover. It was about my friends dealing with the various stages of disgust, heartbreak, and finito with their marriages. Husbands who couldn't or wouldn't meet them where they were, as they were, now. Two of them found refuge in extramarital affairs. Vicki was seriously flirting with the idea, her discontent heightened by her brush with death.
Sophia, on the other hand, never stayed in a marriage long enough to have an affair. So she said.
Beth was unstoppable. "Well, Kev is fantastic. He loves women's bodies. He spends hours romancing the vulva."
Blech. I slid down and let the embryonic water cover my ears. I could still hear every word. They were sending out sex vibes that the water amplified until they were like shock waves. I felt them trigger an internal seismic upheaval I didn't understand. Usually our girl-time was a no-holds-barred free-for-all that I treasured. Why the talk today was provoking an anxiety attack was beyond me. But it was.
"I'm hungry," I announced, standing up fast enough to send waves crashing over the sides. "The Times said the food upstairs is delish--lots of protein and cabbage. Perfect for Atkins, which I'm back on, in case anybody is interested."
But before I could even step out of the tub, Vicki chimed in. "I can remember what that felt like. I still get that shiver when I run into some guy and the electricity starts running like crazy. I just don't have the patience to do anything about it. Yet." Vicki completely ignored my plea for kimchi. Olivia nodded in recognition. Her husband was brilliant, but a social nerd. Her boyfriend wasn't quite as smart, but he crackled with a crazy sexual energy and street smarts that turned her on. And that turned the always private, prim Olivia into a wild woman. She didn't talk about it much, but when she did, I could see her on the back of Colin's Harley, her thighs gripping his from behind. I didn't wait around for her to paint the image. I heaved myself out of the tub, almost falling down on the slippery tile. "I'm going upstairs to get a table," I said. I wrapped myself in the complimentary micro-mini-towel and stormed back to the dressing room.
I had been feeling uneasy since the night before. My youngest son, Ben, had found my dust-covered wedding album on the top shelf of our living room entertainment center. He pulled it down and started leafing through it, asking for the names of all the dead relatives. I sat on the couch next to him and annotated my ancient wedding party. He and I looked at the pictures of the slender, twenty-year-old bride and her fresh-faced groom. "Mom, you look like you were Andrew's age when you got married." He was stunned that I was ever that young.
"Well, I was only a couple of years older than Andrew, but I was even younger than he is now when I met Daddy. I was a mere seventeen on the cusp of eighteen."
I told Ben the familiar story of "how Daddy and I met" during my senior year at the Village School in Great Neck. I was a reporter on the school paper doing my version of an investigative piece on the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, a mysterious military college full of "older" men in uniform. It was a place where good girls didn't venture.