Marcia Aldrich

I find her in the shower/spa area of the health club, nowhere else. It's as if she was born here on the blue and white tiles. I've never seen her getting out of her vehicle in the parking lot wearing grey sweat pants and sneakers or walking through the revolving door of the entrance. I've never even seen her move through the locker room or pose before the mirrors and lotions. Needless to say, I've never seen her depart. It's impossible to imagine her meeting a partner at the end of her day and heading home. She must leave eventually. After all, the club closes each night, but I can't picture her walking out into the empty parking lot in the dark. I can't picture a home she would return to. She strikes me as irrevocably unaccompanied. I've never seen her dressed; she is always and only without clothes. Without jewelry. She is beyond the age of children, at that stage in life when time opens out and waves before you. Her hair, worn in a short boyish cut, is a thin shade of blonde, and might be flecked with grey in harsher light. The light in the spa area is soft and forgiving. She isn't young, that I know. If I had to guess I'd say somewhere in her fifties. Whenever I arrive to swim, no matter what time of day, she's here, a fixture. And she's always doing the same thing, cycling through the cold plunge bath to the steam room then back to the plunge and on to the sauna. She doesn't rotate through once and call it quits like all the other women. She moves back and forth between them through the expanse of time. By evening she's amassed a pile of wet towels, enough to fill one of the carts.

I have a routine, too. I sit in the hot tub for a few minutes limbering up my back before hitting the lap pool to swim a mile. After my swim, I visit the sauna before getting dressed and leaving. From my spot in the hot tub I watch her braced in the cold plunge, as if she's fording a river. She's got a clenched look and heaps glacial water upon her face, almost defiantly, angrily. Her motions are wild and violent, as if she's trying to rouse herself. Then she shakes her head like a dog who has just been given an unwanted bath. At that moment she doesn't seem quite human. Staggering up the steps of the cold plunge she grabs a towel brusquely, wraps it about her waist and heads to the steam room with slow lumbering steps. She devotes a set amount of time to each station, the shortest being the cold plunge and the longest the sauna. Periodically she bursts from the sauna or steam room and stands by the water fountain drinking without any sense someone is behind her waiting. After she's had her fill of water, she heads back into the steam with deliberate resolve, like an old woman closing the front door on her last visitor.

In the beginning, I thought she might be fighting an illness and the intense cleansing was a desperate attempt at remedy. But years have passed without change and I no longer find my theory persuasive. The rituals aren't tied to any programmatic cause I can discern. Not part of a weight loss program, because she isn't overweight; she is exactly as she was the first time I saw her, compactly built. There is no obvious reason to explain what she does. I don't know the life she leaves and returns to. I just see her in this space in between, and she inhabits it so completely that I can't imagine what's on either side of it. Even her body is blank, unreadable: her evenly pale skin is without fat or wrinkles or pockets of flesh, no stretch marks or scars or sagging breasts or varicose veins that would tell me something of where she has been.

My heart aches and pains into the water with me. For the first twenty minutes I swim furiously, slapping the water hard, flipping at the wall with more force than is necessary. I keep going hard, lap after lap, until I've drained myself. By the time I'm at the end of my mile I'm no longer aware of thinking anything and that's what I come for. I come to rid myself of the emotional toxins that build up in my body. Why does she come? What are her toxins? There's something she's trying to do, day after day, that I know. And I'm not sure it's working. Sometimes I fear she's just replacing one kind of ache for another. When I head to the sauna, I find her slumped over on the far right side in the dark. Most women stretch out on their backs across the boards, but she hunches forward, brooding. She holds her head in her hands, rounded over as if in despair. No word of welcome passes her lips, not even a nod of acknowledgment that she's sharing a small space with me. I think she might be dead. Of course she isn't, but the way she never stirs for long stretches of time makes me wonder whether she is more dead than alive. Something has gone quite cold deep inside her and she requires extreme measures to instigate a thaw. I sit at a right angle from the woman who has no name; my back is against the wall. Neither of us says a word. Whether she is aware of me, I can't say. We share the space in between. We share the heat. We sweat and we sweat.

Marcia Aldrich teaches creative writing at Michigan State University. She is the author of Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has had essays appear in The Best American Essays, The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women, and a wide range of literary magazines. She is the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. You can visit her web site at