Stranger in Paradise by Carla Sarett

“It’s not personal,” said a twenty-something guy with a two-day shadow and
oversized spectacles that resembled space goggles. “We love your work, but we’re taking the show in a new direction. We want edgy angels, darker, fresher, and….younger.” He offered me a brain-dead smile.


“I guess I won’t need that halo anymore,” I said. “And by the way, it’s very
personal—to me.”


“I hear you,” he laughed, as if the two of us shared the same burden—although he was firing people, and I was getting fired. “Listen, I got a present for you. It’s summer, you need a vacation.” He passed me a stuffed white envelope. My name was written in old-fashioned script, but with a perky cartoon halo perched above the “i” in Julia.


It was not a bad gift: one first class ticket, a “premium” package for a week to a place called Paradise Spa in Utah—I recognized the spa’s name as one of the show’s sponsors. The pictures in brochure evoked, comically, our own set of archaic temples with Doric column surrounded by women in gauzy, floating dresses. A few more puffy clouds and all would have been complete. A note said: “Special thanks to all of our angels. Please be our guest, all expenses paid for a week in Paradise!”


I was too numb or maybe too heartsick to read the brochure. I flew out days later. Instead of a limo, an enormous van arrived, marked Paradise + Superheroes Camp + Rock and Roll Fantasy! The van was empty except for one small boy and the driver, who wore a brilliant red cape and a costume with a big, bold red S on it—Superman, I surmised.

Jumping out of the van, Superman explained that the fantasy summer camps were adjacent to the spa, so they shared vans from time to time. “Don’t worry. You’ll have total privacy—the kids aren’t allowed anywhere near the spa,” he said, as he stored my luggage.


“I’m not worried,” I told him, “about privacy, I mean. I worry about other things.”


“Well, if you need a doctor,” he said, lifting me into the van. “I’m over at the
Superheroes Camp, Ted Larkin, just in case.”


“It’s a spa, Ted,” I said. “I doubt I’ll need a doctor, but thanks.”


“You never know at Paradise,” he said mysteriously.


I sat in the van’s front seat, next to the small boy who huddled behind Ted—one of the campers, I guessed. He looked down, scared, and then opened a comic book, Spider-Man. He murmured sadly, “Spider-Man hasn’t come. He probably doesn’t know where we are.”


The kid looked so forlorn that I wanted to cheer him up—why not? “Spider-Man knows a lot more than you give him credit for. I saw him at the airport – he said he’s trying to visit,” I said.


“You’ve met Spider-Man!” he giggled. “Can you fly?”


“Sure, I used to be an angel. I flew around with all these other angels. Sometimes, we were above the clouds, but sometimes, we flew lower. That’s how I met Spider-Man. He was on top of the Empire State Building, so we got around to talking.”

“Oh, you’re an angel,” he said, unsurprised.


“I used to be,” I corrected him. “I’m taking a vacation. It’s not easy being so low. I miss flying around, way over the clouds and the birds. But then I find someone like you, and it’s not so bad. You seem like a fascinating type of guy.”


I caught Superman/Ted Larkin eying me warily through the rear-view mirror. If I got over the dopey red cape, he was attractive, too. I felt like explaining that I had played a real angel on cable TV for five years, and I had met the new Spiderman/actor Andrew Garfield at a screening, so it wasn’t a total lie and I wasn’t a certifiable lunatic. But he didn’t ask, so I
couldn’t very well elaborate—and after all, it didn’t matter what a total stranger thought.


When the van pulled over to the gleaming white gates of Paradise Spa, though, I saw the boy’s eyes go wide. The place was built, Vegas-Style, to resemble a giant medieval palace. Two costumed men stood by the gates, as if defending the spa from invaders. I got ready to leave.


“Heaven,” the boy said. He nodded to me conspiratorially. “This must be Heaven, right?”


“No, this is Earth,” I said—but the boy seemed unconvinced.


Then I entered Paradise Spa. The palatial exterior proved deceptive. Inside, Paradise had the feel of a hospital or sanitarium, which, in a weird way, it was—and which, if I had bothered to read the fine print in the brochure, I would have known. It turned out that Paradise Spa specialized in anti-aging therapy—Botox, Juvenex, collagen treatments, laser surgery, you name it. But that was its glossy, PR side. Its real purpose was to serve as a retreat, or resting place, for women after face lifts, eyelid tucks, liposuction, breast augmentation, and so on. The inmates looked like wounded soldiers: black and blue marks, eye patches, bloody ribbons of stitches. The staff dressed in crisp uniforms like nurses in a surgery ward—they marched around with pitchers of water, pouring away, as if everyone was dying of thirst. I could have used a glass of wine, but the spa was a juice-only establishment.


Meals were grim, too, if you could call the ocean-green liquid, pebble-like grains and barely cooked vegetables a meal. Some of the women were instructed to keep their faces rigid for fear that stitches might pop: those poor souls were limited to sipping meals through straws. After a single day, I felt a pit in my stomach. It was a fancy famine, not a luxury vacation. The other women took it in stride.


“It’s all about mind over matter,” one hardened beauty warrior said, as she adjusted her eye patch. “If you force yourself, you can live without anything.”


“Not me,” I said. “I’m a three meals a day gal. And this isn’t real food…it’s inedible, like pet food. I doubt that even pets would eat this. I wouldn’t feed this to a cat anyway.”


“That why you can live without it,” she said. Everyone laughed mournfully.


After dinner, I sank into a hammock by the outdoor pool and shut my eyes. It was a still evening, and no one else was around. I tried to block out my fears about the show and my future. I wondered if I’d end up stitched, patched and tucked, and if that was why I’d been “invited” to such an odd Paradise. Perhaps it was a hint from the goggle-wearing producer—I wouldn’t put it past him.


I dozed off for a while, or until the first faint stars came out. And then, I felt a soft tap on my shoulder—and it became sharper, bolder, urgent. I opened my eyes to the sight of a small, bright Spider-Man. His suit was neon-red, and he glowed in the dark, like a tiny supernatural being, with twinkling stars behind him.


The summer camps were about a half mile down the road, not far. But the spa had a strict, almost phobic, no-kids policy. No one wanted kids to see bruised skin, all of the tell-tale signs of anti-aging therapies. To enter, the toothpick-thin boy must have slithered under the gates, or climbed over them—when you were as light as he was, climbing was easy.


I held out my hand to him so he could pretend to pull me up. “Spider-Man, you’re supposed to be with Batman and the guys. This is a place for grown–ups. Listen to how quiet it is here.”


Somewhere, a bird’s wing fluttered.


He held my hand tightly, and whispered. “I know. It’s heaven. That’s why you’re here, because you’re a real angel.”


“No, this is just a regular place. I’m on vacation like I told you,” I said. “Why do you want to find heaven? Earth is where people sing and dance. Earth is where people have fun.”


It was deathly quiet by the pool. The idea of singing and dancing seemed
remote—and fun even more distant. No one was laughing in Paradise Spa, but they were somewhere – and how could I explain that?


“My mom lives in heaven.” He took out a photo of himself, standing with a tall, athletic-looking woman in hiking shorts. “Have you seen her?”

My throat felt dry. I hadn’t meant any harm with my tales of flying—the boy’s photo looked recent. I shook my head, helplessly, no, no, no. I heard something that might have been a moan from behind his small, red mask.

After a while, I said, “Maybe I can find her.”


“Tell her Tommy wants to see her,” he said. “You won’t forget, you promise?”


“I couldn’t forget,” I said. “Not in a million years, I promise.” It was true, too.

And I walked him back to where he needed to be – and I sang Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise, all lost in a wonderland, a stranger in paradise.


I hardly slept, and I was out of bed before the sun rose. Part of me wanted to leave, then and there. It was bound to be a mess. Tommy would come to find his mom, which short of a miracle, wasn’t happening. But if I left, he might sneak inside the Spa—and he had a lively imagination. I couldn’t bear the idea of Tommy picturing his mom limping around, in the after-life.

That was not an option. I had to figure it out.


Fortunately, there was one “upside” to Paradise Spa. It was filled with women who, after a week or so, were bored stiff. When they heard my story of a little motherless boy, everyone forgot about looking young and feeling “stress.” The women sprang to life. In a matter of hours, I gathered a select, bandage-free group for “a night-time choir.” The props were ready: we had white microfiber lounge gowns from the spa. Many of us were trained
singers, too, either from church or from theater. No one needed a rehearsal. “It’s simple,” I told them. “Just follow me.”

That evening, we waited by the pool until the sky darkened, and tiny Spider-Man appeared. And as he approached, the choir started to sing “Amazing Grace,” very softly. Their pale gowns were reflected in the pool—I had placed them at the rear, nearly invisible, but not quite. The effect was truly spectral, their voices blended into unearthly harmony. Tommy looked ecstatic, as if he might jump and down.


He whispered into my ear, “I knew you’d come.”


Then we heard a grown man’s angry voice, shouting, “Stop right now. This is really sick.”


The singing died down until all was, once again, silent. It was Ted Larkin, from my first day on the van. He was no longer Superman, but dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. I have to say that he was a lot handsomer without the superhero get-up.


He said, “I’m Tommy’s father. What is going on here?”


The women hurried away, disappointed– all it took was a slight nod from me. And then, Ted and Tommy and I were alone. The stars were shining and the moon was a pale yellow.


I said to Ted, “I can explain.”


“Please, me first,” he said. “I volunteered as a counselor this summer because Tommy hasn’t spoken to anyone the whole year since my wife’s death—except to you, that day on the van. I wondered what you said. I was going to thank you. But this is …insane.”


“You should know who I am,” I said.

“I know exactly who you are. You’re Julia Ross, also known as Angel Tiffany.

It was my wife’s favorite show, she never missed an episode. You were her favorite angel.”


“She is a real angel,” said Tommy.


“No, she’s an actress,” said Ted, but then he added in a sweet voice, “She just looks like an angel.”


“Ted, I’m not crazy. Tommy wanted to find his mother in heaven, and I couldn’t bear to disappoint him. I wanted him to give him something beautiful, magical, because he’ll never get what he wants—and he’ll know that soon enough. Is that a crime?”


“He’s only a boy,” said Ted. “What were you thinking?”


“Well, not everything’s about thinking or you wouldn’t be dressing up as Superman,” I said. “What’s that expression, physician, heal thyself?”


Tommy removed his red Spider-Man mask and he looked impossibly small. “My mom was here,” he said. “I could feel it. She was here. I saw her tonight.”


“Tommy,” I said, kneeling to his level. “We were playing a game about being in Heaven. It was make-believe, a beautiful kind of make-believe. I can’t bring your mom back. I wish I could, but I can’t. No one can. I’m sorry, I really am. If I could, I would.”


“But you did. My mom came down here. It was real.”


“What did you really see?” I asked Tommy. “You can tell me.”


“You,” he said and he looked straight at me or into me.

I recalled the picture of Tommy’s young mother. We were nothing alike. For one thing, I was many shades darker than his mom. You might say that we were night and day.


“It’s like how Spider-man looks like Peter Parker, but only if you look into his eyes. You know, he’s wearing a mask so you have to look inside. You have to look real close or you miss it. So I saw her. You believe me, don’t you?”


Ted nodded, yes, and so did I.


From somewhere inside the spa, I heard singing: it was the same hymn, but louder, more boisterous and joyful. It wasn’t only my small band, but a full-bodied chorus of strong, healthy women, or that is how it sounded. That is what I wished for them, for all of them, to run and leap and climb higher and higher, to leave all of their scars and fears behind.


Tommy started to sing along. He stumbled over the words, missing most of them, as people do when they sing the national anthem. But he got hold of the swooning melody – and sooner or later, I knew, he would get the hang of the rest. It was a matter of time. And then, Ted joined in, a little shaky at the start, but surer and stronger as he went along. I guess it felt like paradise on earth for a moment. The hymn ended all too soon and a new song started.


I tilted my head, gently, to signal to Ted that I should go inside where I belonged. But he took my hand and drew me closer to him.


He said, “It’s your turn to sing, Julia. I bet you sound like an angel too.”

About the Author:

Carla Sarett has been published regularly in literary magazines, such as Black RabbitHobart, Across the MarginsThe Olive Press and others; and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best American Essay. In addition, she has a short comic novel A Closet Feminist recently accepted by a small press.  She has a Ph.D. from The University of Pennsylvania, and  lives in San Francisco.  This story first appeared in the anthology  Summer Dreams.

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