Although it turns out to be an easy walk from my apartment, I’ve never heard of the place where my younger sister’s birthday girls’ “night” begins at three p.m. It’s Zayed’s treat, Isaura’s latest wealthy and influential man. “You look great,” she says as we hug on the sidewalk. But my reliable little black dress fades in the gleam of the long taut bodies emerging from the other guests’ rides in breezier, more of-the-moment clothes. Even the names I strive to remember feel more glamorous than the plain one I inherited from my grandmother. With every breath away from the street, down a narrow alleyway a bit off from straight, square, or plumb, expected urban odors give way to a compelling fragrance. Herbal? Edible? Incense, integral to spiritual practices unknown? We emerge into a courtyard, ethnic indoor/outdoor rugs beneath our feet, abundantly leafy pergola above. Additional luxuriant plants ring the space, lending cooler, fresher air. It’s like we’ve left late June in the city altogether. Someone model-graceful, in wide-leg crops and tiny halter, throws gilded arms around yoga class friend Janyssa’s dewy brown shoulders. She ushers us to one of a few roughly circular heaps of springy floor pillows, velvety cool against my legs. Zayed has prearranged a tasting menu with drink pairings. I enjoy losing count of the courses, the number of cuisines fused on fabulously mismatched small plates. Isaura and company Instagram everything: Mini coupes of honeyed coconut milk with cardamom, rose and saffron, accompanying delicately stuffed zucchini blossoms. A tarragon-pear hard kombucha shot paired with a shared, edible grass nest of minuscule eggs, smaller than quail’s eggs, embellished with multicolored marinades and petals. (I snap a memento of those, too; they’re stunning.) An icy hit of seaweed-infused vodka complements ceviche on the half-shell. A spiced wine, darker and more potent than Amarone, alongside fig and olive tapenade thumbprinted into marbles of stinky cheese. And on and on. In between, we sip utterly pristine spring water. Isaura keeps offering hands up into the conversation, but I mostly let it flow around me. It’s not just an introvert thing. Like her, they’re at the childless peak of careers, beauty, sexy travel adventures. Nobody wants to hear about my abandoned degree, unfulfilling résumé, empty nest grown more echoey since Christmas. They’re the equivalent of the menu set before us; I’m a fast-casual burrito, no garnish. Behind one door, tucked amid the rows of plants, await exquisitely-scented hair treatment masks and pedicures, with essential oil scalp and foot massages. Laughing, Isaura refuses my choice of neutral polish. “Not on my birthday.” Her lash extensions dip balletically as she sips champagne, then rolls her eyes in appeal toward the person at my feet. “Tell her.” My eyes have mostly drifted blissfully out of focus, or closed entirely, during the treatment. From the powerful hands, the slim lines beneath the dark uniform, I had taken my pedicure and massage artist for a young Asian man, but I’m suddenly unsure any of that is true. The answering laugh is ageless, genderless; artfully smudged dark eyes and white teeth flash in a sculpted olive face. “What is your favorite color?” they ask, quietly over the bubbling footbath, with I have no idea what soft, elegant accent. I shake my head. “Orange. But…” It’s silly. I don’t own any clothes the color I have in mind. I don’t even know if it has a name. They smile slightly again, lips closed. After a moment’s deliberation, they turn back from the wall of polishes. The exact cayenne-amber shade shimmers at me within a heavy-bottomed square vial. I’m too startled not to acquiesce. “Very good, madam.” They glance at my empty water glass. “And perhaps some tea?” “No tea.” Isaura giggles in righteous inebriation. The lovely white smile quirks with mischief. “House cocktail?” “What the hell.” I smile too. I’m not driving. The drink arrives, along with reinforcements for the bubbles Isaura and her girls are enjoying, as my toenails receive their second coat of sunset glow. The hue flatters my skin tone more than I expected. I daydream about finding a gauzy blouse to match, on the sale rack wherever they sell low-backed linen sundresses to yoga ladies. The house cocktail is faintly effervescent, a hint sweet, and seems light on the alcohol. Its ineffable herbal ingredients coordinate like magic with the rest of the spa experience. Okay, I could drink unwise numbers of these, particularly on Zayed’s dime. As we stretch back in our cushy chairs to rinse out the hair mask, one or two at a time, the ladies discuss commemorative tattoos, which can be had here. I sigh and hope Isaura doesn’t twist my arm. My tattoos predate my grown children: relics of a bygone era. Expert fingertips massage my scalp with the perfect pressure beneath skin-temperature water. I wouldn’t mind if it went on for longer. “Will we let your wonderful curls air-dry, as they were earlier?” they suggest, swathing my hair in a microfiber towel. “You’re so nice. Yeah, you don’t have to mess with it.” Cumulative liquor consumption renders me suddenly confessional. “I should be covering the gray at this point, right? It’s crept in so much this year.” Their eyes kindle, newly intense. “Some people’s gray, yes, if they prefer. But yours, never. It is like balayage. Moonlight instead of sun.” God, can I also blame the cocktail for making me flush? “Must be one big-ass waxing gibbous moon,” I say under my breath. “Absolutely, madam.” Their tiny smile grows incrementally. “And you will be joining your party in the next salon?” “Yesss,” Isaura coaxes, leaning in to clink her glass against mine. “Oh.” I sigh, torn between the normal world and whatever realm we’ve stepped into. “I’ll go in with you, at least.” Except I’m ready for the next thing now, while the rest want their hair styled. I fidget, flexing and pointing my feet to watch my pedicure flicker. “Madam might enjoy the salt grotto,” my attendant says, replacing my empty glass with a fresh one. “We did that in Vegas. I didn’t get much from it, except damn bored,” Isaura says. Well, I’m damn boring too, compared to everyone else here. “Sure,” I say. “Let’s see it.” I feel the house cocktail a bit, just a moderate happy buzz, as I’m led in my spa sandals along the secret passageway between tall plants in mosaic pots and the courtyard wall, around a corner to a second door. Above the leafy canopy, it’s twilight. I’m not sure whether we’re entering the same building. This low-lit room smells like a spicier sphere of paradise. It’s warmer, bone dry, with an unobtrusive soundtrack of wind chimes and singing bowls. The attendant scrunches my hair with the towel, arranging the curls to either side so I can recline in my heated stone lounge chair, then leaves me and my cocktail to ourselves. Between the quiet percussion, you can’t hear the courtyard full of diners… or the city at all, only a stillness I relish awhile. The chimes’ random arpeggio hints at the opening of “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta.” In time, I find myself humming, then vocalizing, finally singing softly to unprecedented fusion accompaniment. Who can say how the lyrics I once studied reach my mouth just in time to return to life? My voice is warm, reasonably hydrated. I find myself liking the altered timbre. Clearly, there’s great insulation in here, so I sit up straight to sing the entire piece out from memory. Rain-soft applause answers from somewhere over my shoulder. My startled glance finds the attendant, standing before a different closed door I hadn’t noticed. A tear has spilled down one smooth cheek. “Forgive the intrusion.” It’s the most feminine they’ve seemed. “But how could I resist such a voice? It’s your life’s work, yes?” “No.” I’m blushing again. “Well. Might have been. I even sang that in a legendary Venetian opera house once during a summer intensive. Just never finished the degree, or… you know, had the career.” “I can’t imagine what stood in your way.” “Beautiful seven-pound boy at the end of my junior year,” I admit. “His sister, three years later. A biochemist and an environmental engineer, nowadays.” “Most worthy reasons.” They bend their head. I have enough wits about me not to blurt anything untoward about their father’s voracious ambition eclipsing mine, too many beautiful grad students, clichéd midlife crisis melodrama, fucking Christmas week gift of divorce papers. “Um. So, it’s the tattooing hour?” They nod, catching my eyes again. “I hope you’ll consider it. My work is bespoke, unique designs solely informed by each customer’s energy. To create yours would be an honor.” “Oh… you’d do it yourself?” My resistance escapes in a little sigh, dissipating into the dry salt air. I savor the fragrant dregs from my glass. “Uh. Could you… cover a shitty-looking old one?” “Certainly, madam.” “And if you could--not mention it, my singing. Isaura shouldn’t have to share the spotlight at her party.” “Understood.” They move fluidly to the door where we entered. “But she doesn’t. She has her light; you have yours.” “Well, my bulb busted and hers got upgraded to a Klieg, but okay.” I’m not convinced I physically hear the words, as their steps whisper out into the courtyard. “How does your waxing moon shine, if not by the light of your own sun?” But when we’re all behind a third door with tattoo equipment, lots more lush plants and yet more champagne, a drape covering my lap and my dress hiked awkwardly above my waist, the repressed laughter glittering in their eyes makes me think they said it after all. The tattoo that began in the late lamented hollow of my right hipbone, gnawed by stretch marks, absconding collagen, and gravity, was once a full-circle moon: a bright waxing crescent and the rest in bluish shadow, faded now. I sigh. “Too gross to make anything cute out of, right?” They smile. A server hands me one more house cocktail.
Later, I’m not sure what hour, even Isaura’s coterie has switched to the delicious spring water. They’ve gone for a group design, each artist’s distinct interpretation of a lotus at the nape of each elegant neck. Isa’s swirls with vibrant blue and fuchsia, like some exotic reef dweller. “Wow,” she says, inspecting my nearly completed art. “That’s really good, how you can’t see the old one anymore. What kind of egg is it, a dragon?” “Aww, spoilers!” I wasn’t going to peek. Now I do an inelegant crunch off the headrest for my first look. The new design is the size of a chicken’s egg: startlingly three-dimensional thanks to the underlying depth of light and shadow, its lifelike textured gray shell speckled dull red-orange, more densely patterned at the base. It’s beautiful. My attendant briefly lifts a cryptic smile. “She’ll see when it hatches.”
The next morning, Sunday, I awake late, but the opposite of hungover. It’s raining. I open the windows enough to breathe petrichor mingling with my cappuccino’s fragrance and the yummy garlic-onion waft from across the hall. The tattoo doesn’t hurt, but it’s hot. When I peel back the plastic to check for concerning red streaks--who the hell gets inked down an unfamiliar alley at night?--it looks weirdly healed, already part of me; in this light, the speckles seem to glow from within. I neglect my meal planning list at the grocery store, hunting international aisles and prepared foods for unexpected indulgences. I splurge on imported spring water in a bottle that resembles sea glass. Stopping into my favorite noodle shop on the walk home, I ask the adorable Vietnamese owner to choose any takeout for me but the same two dishes she knows I regularly crave. On my balcony, sheltered from the rain, I feast on pure water and spicy-crunchy-umami mystery. Then, buzzing on chili peppers and fresh humid breeze, I turn on my keyboard for the first time in eons. There’s incomprehensibly pencil-annotated sheet music jumbled together under the bench seat. I was never the household pianist, but I can plunk out sufficient pitches and chords to reclaim more of my old auditory stomping ground than that one lovely corner I rediscovered last night. Wandering there until after dark, I imagine the tattoo pulsing in affirmation of the more dramatic passages. It particularly likes full-throttle notes above G5, whether the sounds themselves or my thrill at running into such long-lost dear friends in a place like this. Too soon, I realize I’d better go to bed, or tomorrow morning’s alarm will be a beast. Getting out of the shower and into pajamas, I notice a spider vein beginning to show through the paler top of the egg. How disappointing. Maybe it’s only when my skin is warm from bathing? I rotate my hip, examining it from different angles. It almost resembles a spiderweb crack in the eggshell. Two good nights’ sleep in a row would be like lightning striking the same place twice. But some time past one, after the most spectacular capsaicin-fueled hot flash I’ve experienced yet, I collapse into motionless, dreamless rest. I struggle up, with the kind of sacroiliac snap-crackle-pop that feels great afterward, barely in time to grab work clothes. In lieu of a dreamy blood-orange-hued blouse, my fingertips scrambling through the closet unearth a half-forgotten scarf from once upon a time in Italy, which I toss around my neck on my way out. There’s a guy in the hallway, just stepping out the door opposite mine. A son of my elderly neighbor, Mrs. D’Agostino. I’ve noticed him visiting before; his cooking always smells amazing. He’s grown a nice, trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. “Good morning,” he says. “Oh. Hi again.” “We enjoyed your music last night.” Shit. “Sorry, was it too loud? I wasn’t thinking…” He smiles. “No, seriously. I didn’t recognize the recording, those minimalist piano arrangements, but damn, the lyric soprano hits kept coming.” “You’re a musician?” He shakes his head, hazel eyes bright with a smaller smile. “Just a fanboy.” I smile, relaxing a little. “Who’s the artist? Someone new, I guess, if she sounds like that but I haven’t heard of her yet.” “Someone so old you’ve never heard of her.” My face blazes yet again. “Um. That was me, messing around.” He’s speechless for a gratifying moment. Then he says, softer, “So. The artist, I still didn’t catch her name?” Smooth. I chuckle inwardly. “Luz.” He offers a strong hand. “Anthony.” “Well, thanks for brightening my Monday morning, Anthony.” He laughs as I start downstairs. “My pleasure. See ya.” I’m one landing down before he calls after me, “Hey. Could I brighten your Friday evening, too?” I look up. “Soft opening for my buddy’s new place. Wine, appetizers, strolling opera performers. Probably no one of your caliber, but I could introduce you.” “Oh, I don’t really…” I stop. “Actually, that sounds fun. Thanks.” He grins and joins me on the landing; we exchange numbers, then walk down together. Although the movement provokes more tiny hip flexor crackles, I’m feeling anything but old. Not only am I a few minutes late, but I daydream on company time, too--researching dresses to try on one night this week, because I’m overdue to retire that LBD. It might not be up to my usual detailed standard, but I’m still done by six. When I use the bathroom on my way out, the dry plastic wrap flutters from my uncovered hip to the floor. Annoyed, I glance down--to find no egg, not even the old moon, just an Ash Wednesday type smudge. Joke’s on you, madam, I tell myself as I wash my hands. Or on Zayed, whatever he paid. But my eyes prickle with tears.
I can’t shake it. Tuesday evening, although GPS struggles to pinpoint the unmarked alley, eventually I find my way back. Except there’s no pergola, no rugs, nothing. Just “EASTERN WELLBEING” stenciled on one unremarkable black door, “GREEN HOUSE” on another. Only a hint of the unforgettable aroma seems to linger. Did I vividly hallucinate your birthday party? I text Isaura in a cold sweat, sending a photo. Laugh emoji. Right?! Sorry. It was a collaborative pop-up, word of mouth only, already closed. Zayed’s family friend was head chef/Janyssa’s cousin co-owns the plant place/Wines from across the street Shaky-handed typos slow me down. How’s your new lotus looking? I finally say. Puffy. Itchy AF. Normal at 72hrs out. Love it though I loved mine, too, I can’t quite reply. Even before I stop by to confirm, I can guess: Eastern Wellbeing Spa Centre rented out its divine-smelling treatment rooms and salt grotto for the pop-up week, but has no employees fitting my tattoo artist’s description.
After that night’s ice cream dinner in front of a workmanlike streaming Turandot, I pull myself together. There’s no fairy godparent to magick me up a dress, but I’m still going to the ball. I work through Wednesday’s lunch to gain shopping time. I’ll need more. The boutiques Isaura’s girlfriends have recommended are out of my price range, size range, age range, or humiliating combinations thereof. I wander into a funky little vintage shop well after eight, already resigned to hitting a department store tomorrow. If worst comes to worst, just resurrect the LBD. The stagnant air isn’t promising, but the miniature grandma behind the glass counter bestows a charming smile. As I browse, the quiet glitter of piano background music unfolds into an Italian art song I haven’t heard since college. Reminded of Anthony’s bright-eyed grin, I dare hum along under my breath. My right back ribcage itches, the weirdest tickle like tiny claws. God, are there mice? Fortunately, my panicked hand doesn’t find so much as an insect bite. When I continue rubbing the itch, it subsides into warmth. I linger over a semi-sheer swirl of dusty brick, gray, soft plum, and antique gold: lined to the knees, cutaway shoulders, high neck to tie above an open back. Am I trying too hard to be a yoga girl? Could it be a muumuu? But its ambiguous “vintage” intrigues me, and I can’t stop touching the fabric. I lift the hanger in front of my body. “Be honest. Can I pull this off?” “Honey. You want, you wear.” I wonder where that thick accent hails from. The shopkeeper tilts her cotton candy updo toward one corner. “Wanna see, fitting room is there.” The dress drapes without clinging; the shape doesn’t swallow me. My pedicure glinting from beneath the hem complements the colors. My shoulders look cute. We’ll have a winner if I can get the attic smell out in time, and if… As I twist to gauge whether the back would accommodate my longline bra without revealing folds I’m not showing anyone on a first date, a flash in the time-worn mirror catches my eye. A silky pool flutters down around my feet; I stare open-mouthed over my shoulder at the fantastical chick tattooed partway up the right side of my back. Smaller than a sparrow, with babyishly enormous amber eyes, no longer a downy hatchling. Delicately fringed feathers flame from her oversized wings and tail, toward my waist. “So that’s where you went?” I murmur. “I thought… Aw, I wish I’d seen you as a newborn.” “No cell phone,” the shopkeeper calls. “You want, you buy. Closing.” I muffle an amazed laugh. “Okay. I’ll take it.” Over my shoulder, I whisper, “We’re wearing this to meet new friends who know our songs. You’ll love it.”
Although she never moves while I can see her, by Friday afternoon she’s nestled between my shoulder blades, growing wings unfurled. One last time, I consider the safer black dress. But if he didn’t like tattoos, I’d... what? Remove her? Hell no. I French twist my hair, moonlight balayage curls loose on top. He’s offered to pick me up, but we meet there. In my flurry of nerves, I arrive early and people-watch from sidewalk to patio (where they’re passing trays of bruschetta, jumbo shrimp, and prosecco). I don’t know which direction he’ll come from. “My God, it’s La Fenice in the flesh,” he says, behind me. Then, softer, “Can you be real?” I start to turn. Oh, he smells even nicer than the nearby fresh basil. “I think so? Buonasera...” “Wait.” I doubt he intends to touch my skin, but when he moves the ties aside, one respectful fingertip ignites sparks along my spine. “That’s... perfection.” “Thanks, but she’s, um, actually a work in progress.” “Oh? Good for her.” He’s taller than I remembered, in a jacket and crisp white shirt whose open collar wafts that delicious hint of pop-up fairytale experience cologne. Smiling, he ushers me toward someplace new.
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Ashley Anglin is delighted to return to miniskirt. She tells small, medium and large stories where magic illuminates girls’ and women’s ordinary lives. Her midlife début novel, Undiscovered, will be released by Shadow Spark in 2023. This is her third fictional nod to Venice, although she’s only visited La Fenice as a fangirl (she’s an amateur soprano, but can’t nail the attack on the high C in “Doretta”). She has no tattoos yet.