The following piece is my submission to this month's STSC Symposium. What's STSC? Standing for the Soaring Twenties Social Club, it's an online speakeasy with a bunch of cool people. Join us to find out.
“No, Mark is actually right here. You had to call the pocket before hitting the eight ball,” Patch tells me.
I call him Patch because of the piece of fabric with activated vitamins on his forearm. I don't know his real name. Exchanging names after three days of bumping into each other in the corridors that smell of patchouli oil would seem a bit awkward. He calls me Young Man for the same reason. And I bet he only knows Mark's name because of that one time the movement therapist shouted it out loud 30 times because he was late. Silly Mark, they did tell us to always come at least 5 minutes early. This wasn’t a strict rule, but most of us adhered to it almost religiously, like we did with most of the rules here.
“Are you sure it's not the opposite pocket?” I protest after losing a game where most stripes, which Patch played, were still on the stained fabric of the pool table.
“Opposite, parallel, perpendicular, you still have to call it,” Mark intervenes with his colour commentary which didn't cease for a moment I was playing Patch. He sounds joyous as he is about to take my place. “Sorry Junior, them's the rules.”
Fluid was what those rules were—changing from person to person, adapting to the will of the player with a more authoritative look. One day it was losing your turn after sending the white ball off the table. The next day it was already two turns. If you lost ten-nil in foosball, which the place also had but was less popular than the manlier pool, you'd have to crawl under the table. The pool table was too low for that sort of buffoonery, and I really doubt that my fellow players had the flexibility needed to debase themselves like that. Losing the game you were the obvious leader in by sinking the eight ball in the wrong pocket was demoralising enough.
“I’ll see you in the evening then, right? Gonna scoot to do the magnetic mat thing,” I say, raising my hand in a semi-salute. My pool nemeses do the same, before starting a rather pointless discussion about the sequence in which the balls should go into the triangle. At least they’re not measuring the distance between its corners and the table’s borders. Patch did say that that’s how they do it in tournaments.
I vaguely remember snooker being shown too often on the sole sports channel included in my grandparents' cable package. Snooker always seemed classy, you could smell the expensive aftershave and perfume with notes of tobacco and leather through the screen. Pool was the lousy cousin of snooker, the one that stayed behind working in the local warehouse, when the more fortunate one went to Germany to build a proper career.
I run up the stairs with the grace of a mountain goat, passing two older women still adjusting to having a leg stuck in a cast. Brave women like that take the stairs while folk with less troubling complaints than a broken leg take the elevator from the ground floor to the second.
The paper agenda in my pocket tells me I have ten minutes left until my next procedure, so I linger a bit by the glass wall to the pool and sauna zone. The two-spread pages in the free Sunday edition lied to me – there was a clear lack of swimsuit models. And whenever I catch a glimpse of someone young and in shape, I know that I can’t stare for too long. When you’re the only fit person in a sea of folk who would never get hired to do a wellness retreat photoshoot, you probably have an acute ability to catch people ogling you. Today is especially devoid of eye bleach, and I’ve already seen enough old guys in speedos to be blown away by the powerful waterfall-like stream.
“You’re early, but luckily the room is vacant,” the lovely Dolores (that’s what her nametag says and I’d like to look her parents in the eyes and ask why the hell did they call their daughter Pain) tells me. She looks at her paper agenda and adds: “You’re in number twelve today.”
We walk together through a row of identical rooms that have velvet screens for doors. Some are occupied by patients and various aggregates – lamps emitting some powerful amber light, vibrating casts, and magnetic mats, the kind I’m about to experience.
“Take your shoes off, and lie down,” Dolores tells me, but I’m already standing there without my sneakers, my colourful socks I got last Christmas being the only layer between my feet and the cold linoleum floor. It’s funny how quickly this place makes you adapt to new rules and routines, be it by the pool table or in one of these small rooms where some sort of magic is supposed to happen, according to the same print ads that promised an abundance of fit people. Why would you ever break those rules? But there must be people who try, otherwise, how would you explain the one-hundred-euro fine for smoking in the room?
Dolores pushes a few buttons on the little tablet tethered to the magnetic mat under my backside. The mystery apparatus emits a few peeps and starts its subtle work on my body or internal organs. So subtle that you can’t feel it. There’s no heat, no tingling sensation, nothing that can tell me that something is happening. What if Dolores, Irma or Yana – the three muses of wellness on this floor – pushed the same buttons on a display not connected to anything? Would the procedure feel more or less meaningless?
“The timer will go off in twenty minutes,” she says pulling the curtain behind her. Twenty minutes with my thoughts. Twenty minutes of staring at the ceiling. Feels like home, only with a bit of current running under me. If it’s actually running.
I don’t know if any of the procedures can or will help me. The mud wrappings felt nice. It was like a warm embrace that lasted for a full fifteen minutes, and felt even longer. The underwater massage was pleasant too, and the mineral bath with levander oil was like a bubble bath on steroids. I’m drinking mineral water every day, going to every single relaxation session, listening to Placido Domingo sing about Granada in the salt room. I hope it all helps, but to really know if it does, I’d have to be sure of what’s actually wrong with me.
What can a man think of in the twenty minutes of alone time, with no screens, no moving pictures, no posters, no stimuli? Every empty room is a deprivation chamber of sorts if you stay motionless and silent for long enough. You expect you’d be thinking of all the eight-zero-zero-eight-fives you’ve seen that day or week, but that phase gets skipped quite quickly. So you just lie there with your thoughts that surprise you with the level of dumbness you thought unimaginable. Does it make sense to wash your hands if water has germs in it too? Why do people run from the police in car chases on telly, when it always ends with them getting caught? Is it the adrenaline? Or perhaps a part of some criminal code? Maybe if you surrender without a fight, your cellmates treat you as a submissive man-whore. I would probably not last long in prison. Although there are prisons for those who are too afraid to go to the proper slammer. But would it be safer to be surrounded by cowards and child rapists than by thieves and pushers?
This is a place of reflection after all. Magnet-assisted reflection therapy. They should brand it like that, and maybe attract goobers who need a machine or app to help them eat better, think clearer, and breathe deeper. Or maybe I could open a room like that on my own, charge by the hour, and live a comfortable life.
The timer beeps and I am back to my more composed self. Shoes on, laced up, ready to go wherever my little green agenda takes me. But maybe I can squeeze in another game of pool before hitting my next round of procedures, some of which sound proper Medieval. I saw beeswax mentioned, and I can only hope the version of Dolores responsible for administering bee products is not a sadist. The place did promise a better me, but I don’t really want to have the bruises to prove it.
The road back to the basement where the two tables stand is almost empty, as people are having lunch in the cafeteria. All that variety but you still get people who reinvent the food pyramid by placing lasagna, hashbrowns and blood sausage on the same plate. Old people are interesting like that, they either eat like kids, or like frugal veterans that can’t stand a little bit of colour on their plate. I pass posters with the same fit people that are absent in this facility. Maybe it’s the wrong season or maybe there’s a separate wing where all the girls on girlfriend spa retreats (although, this is not technically a spa) go and take their pictures in white robes, their long hair drying in a towel Erykah Badu style. Or maybe you literally can’t see them, as they exist on a different plane, where light breaks differently. Fit people, fit girls walking around wearing appropriate but still sexy attire, rushing on their way to be covered in mud, to have layers of dead skin peeled off their naturally tanned bodies, to playfully gossip and laugh by the poolside, while their male companions swim laps and enjoy a manly chat in one of the many saunas – Russian, Turkish, infrared. And after that, they retreat to their rooms and have pillow fights.
The pool table stands desolate and I quickly build the triangle, the way that Patch told me. I’ll get to practice before he and Mark come. I like the bunny hop move, even though there’s a likelihood of sending the ball off the table. Always a bit of a fuss around here. The guys playing table tennis on the other side of the room do it all the time and no one bats an eye.
I place the white ball in the place that looks like a cigarette burn in the green cloth. No chalk for my cue. I wonder if there was any. Would anyone nick cue chalk? Getting ready to break the pyramid.
“Excuse me,” a voice pierces the silence making me look up. “Can I join?”
The voice’s owner looks fine – a woman without a walker, which makes her at least an eight in this wing. Maybe even an eight outside of the confines of this retreat that feels like second home after And most importantly, she probably doesn’t know about the eight-ball rule, meaning I can make one up.
“Of course, it’ll be my pleasure.”