When people look at me they sometimes think of the word “decadence,” but I only have the face and body of a decadent person, not the experience. I am someone who enjoys getting rid of things, even if it seems like I should be sitting down in a jewelry store surrounded by gold.
Something has brought me here. Violent paintings. Almost all of them are religious. Here, in the middle of the gallery, is that famous one of St John the Baptist’s head on a platter. See the shadows on Salome’s face and neck? When I see too many paintings like this, I emerge into something softer, allowed the pleasure of arriving from a museum into a warm winter night. This is why I look. Snow blankets the ground, but not coldly. I could take off my coat if I wanted to. I don’t have to wear gloves.
Usually I gravitate towards paintings of village scenes. Look at this one with its bright dabs of light in the windows of the houses. I would like to go inside the houses. I would like to go inside those rooms above the pastry shop. In one of the windows sits a simple striped chair and a side table with books on top. I could read in that room, and entertain guests.
Even though I am not a decadent person, I have had decadent friendships. I have been able to love many people. Today I miss everyone and I look at the paintings feeling close to something.
I have been trying to figure out my relationship to the person I live with, who I also love, though I don’t know him very well. We have only lived together for a few weeks and in that time there have been many nights of sitting bundled up on the porch, and now that it’s even colder, in the living room or the kitchen, or one of us reads in bed. It is me who usually lies in bed, sometimes with my laptop. I look at things on the Internet, but I am still aware of the mountains around us. They have become part of everything and the Internet doesn’t stop this.
Here is a winter scene in which a shrub covered in snow looks like a tarantula. And a painting of a frost fair on the river Thames in 1684. A full marketplace set up for the freezing, the doors of the tents flapping, and people riding over the ice on their horses to get to them, or walking in groups of three or four, with a dog running on ahead. In this painting the light comes from a small fire on the edge of the frozen river.
Here I am returning home. My figure crosses the landscape; a mountainside with dark houses perched here and there. Now I am on the porch, stamping the snow from my boots. The person I live with is heating something on the stovetop.
We embrace. The room is warm from the stove.
“You look like you want something,” he says.
“It’s just the way my face is shaped.” The living room is sparse and perfect. Two comfortable chairs with an oval rug between them. A clear glass bowl sits on the windowsill. All the boxes are gone.
“It looks great in here,” I say. “Actually, it might be the best place I’ve ever lived in.”
“I’ll go organize the bedroom.”
All of our bedroom things are taken out of boxes, cleaned, and put away; when your belongings are few unpacking doesn’t take long. The bed is next to the window, and now there’s a fine dresser across from it that used to belong to my grandmother. Our clothes are inside. I place pink and blue cloth flowers in my hair and see my reflection. I’m startled by how spoiled I look.
Before I left the last city I lived in, all my friends had already moved. I went to a party and in the bathroom I thought to myself, when you walk back out none of the people you love will be there.
One friend is too much in her body, and was one of the people I missed most in that bathroom, feeling how far away she was, that I wouldn’t go with her to parties in that city anymore. Another friend and I used to remind each other that someday this moment would be over, a continuous recognition, grateful to still be immersed in it.
For a long time after that I thought I had already met all the people worth meeting, but it wasn’t true. Something in me has always been naïve, though I’m not sure my face has registered that.
Today I am going to the spa. It costs $20 and I will spend five hours there. If only to warm up in winter to sweat things out of me, I need the spa. In between the hot tub and the steam room I stay for a while in the cold pool just so I can get hot again.
Here is the mugwort tub, brewed like a tea. A sign above it lists its healing properties. One of them is for hysteria. Another is for tired legs. It’s so hot I can barely lower myself all the way in, but I do. The black water laps at my collarbones.
Here is the dry sauna, glowing red, wide planks of wood lining the walls. Heated rocks rest elegantly in the corner, while a woman pours a pitcher of water on top of them. When I lie down, the wooden bench burns me. I am quieting something in myself.
At the end of my five hours I fall asleep on the heated floor in the relaxation room. Others are sleeping too and as I drift off I can hear the distant sound of lockers opening and closing, and of hairdryers.
With some of my friends I have had a falling out. In that bathroom, I also thought of them. I see myself as a caring person, but the anger directed at me from a few of the people I’ve been close to makes me question that characteristic. One friend said she had to end her relationship with me because I wasn’t good for her. On one hand this made sense, as I know there were ways in which I let her down. We were supposed to live with each other and I backed out of it. On the other hand it confused me, and made me feel as if I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did, because I loved her and I believed I had shown her this, in other ways. Maybe I’m not as in touch with the harmful parts of myself as I am with the loving. With some friends, we’ve taken turns hurting each other, and have come out of it on another side.
It’s beautiful how long a friendship can last, even when it is awkward to be around each other. Even when there is nothing to say, neither person wants to let go. I think this is because the body still remembers the relationship, and most likely the bodies keep it alive in spite of the mind. The best thing would be to spend time with each other physically, but this is not always possible or appropriate.
The body remembers. The body wants to have its own relationship. The mind will have to say something about it afterward, or, sometimes the mind doesn’t have to say anything at all.
Yesterday the person I live with bought me a richly designed dress, and though I like it very much I’m afraid when I wear it I’ll look aristocratic. It transforms me almost completely, physically that is. Paired with even a single piece of jewelry I’ll barely know who I am.
“Try it on,” he says.
In our simple, cabin-like house I put on a dress that is deeply, deeply patterned with the night sky.
I don’t actually think I can look at myself in any kind of mirror.
We watch something violent on my laptop. It will help me wear this dress.
Amina Cain's most recent book is Creature, a collection of stories from Dorothy, a publishing project. Writing has appeared in BOMB, n+1, The Paris Review Daily, Denver Quarterly, Two Serious Ladies, and other places. She lives in Los Angeles. “Gentle Nights” appears in the author’s collection, Creature, and has been reprinted with generous permission by the publisher.