Mary was sitting in a yellow three-seater boat with Beth and Steve in the depths of the Salina Turda salt mines in Romania. This was their last chance to go, as they would be leaving for home in a couple days. They were all studying journalism at UBB in Cluj; Mary had only become friends with them because they were the only two people to talk to her on the first day of class. Everyone else seemed to have traveled there with a group from their school or were too focused on trying to be the next Christiane Amanpour to make any friends. Mary felt they had only done it to be nice; they probably smelled the desperation on her and took pity.
Beth and Steve were usually too focused on themselves to pay Mary much mind. They had gotten married a few months before classes started and were clearly still in the honeymoon phase.
After walking down about a hundred small flights of soggy wooden stairs, they had made it into the mines to see stalactites covering one giant wall, along with a Ferris wheel and mini golf set-up in front of a merchandise booth. Mary stood in the middle of it all, trying to take in the immense structures combined with the crowd of strangers. There were friends greeting each other with light pecks on the cheek, large families with small children, a mother kissing her son’s knee after a fall. None of them seemed to be speaking in words she could understand. In the midst of her rising panic, Beth and Steve ushered her over to a ledge overlooking a far deeper cavern that appeared to be filled with water and small boats.
“Let’s go down there! I want to ride in one of those—it looks so romantic,” Beth said, draping her arm over Steve as she kissed his cheek before pulling him away.
“I don’t know, do you think it’s—” Mary countered, but Steve turned around to reassure her.
“Don’t worry, Mary. It looks like fun!” He turned back to Beth, who was wrapping her arms inside his jacket and kissed her on the nose.
Mary let out a short sigh before letting them tug her along, pushing past the crowd to make it to the dock. After twenty minutes, they made it to the boat line, gliding their way in front of arguing older couples and young, distracted selfie enthusiasts. Now they were in a small boat with Mary reluctantly rowing on one end so that Beth and Steve could sit together, aka make-out, on the wider seat. It took a few tries, with her almost dropping the paddles in the dark water before she finally got the hang of it.
The cavern was immense. The walls went way up on all sides, circling them in, while long lines with short, bright lights hung over the water. There was a wooden bridge leading to a round dock in the center of the cavern, with domed wooden structures built on top for tourists to sit and watch their kids play while the crystal-shaped lights on top cast out the shadows from the water.
Mary was amazed. She had been skeptical about traveling to the lowest point of the mines, especially when they came to the second set of short, crowded wooden stairs that made you feel claustrophobic for fifteen minutes, but now all she could think of was how open it felt. They were a hundred meters underground, yet she felt endless. The walls were lined with silver streaks, waving up and down in false patterns. It looked like they were filled with glitter.
“I wanna touch the wall,” Beth pleaded to Steve. She was practically sitting on his lap, while Steve’s lips were permanently glued to her neck. “Can you row us next to it, Mary?”
They ended up rowing in a complete circle before they could get close enough, but finally, they were able to reach out and touch it. Its skin was rough, covered in sharp glitter crystals of salt. It left Mary’s fingers feeling cold and wet like she’d just dipped her hand in the ocean. Beth and Steve were trying to be cute and lick the salt off each other’s fingers.
Mary wondered how many people had touched this wall, how many fingerprints were left on this private sector of earth.
“Hold the paddles,” she said, handing the oars over to Steve.
“Why, what are you gonna do?”
Without responding, Mary climbed on her knees, careful not to rock the boat, and faced the wall. She glided over its shimmery surface with her hand before she leaned in close and held out her tongue. She licked the wall; it gave back a short punch, the taste of salt lingering between her teeth.
“Gross!” Beth said, giving her a shocked look of disgust. “Do you know how many germs must be on that thing? You might as well have licked dirt.”
“Hey, you don’t know how gross it is,” Steve countered. “And c’mon, how many people could’ve touched that exact spot?”
“Plenty. Besides, maybe someone else licked that! She just kissed a stranger!” (Beth seemed to be the only one emotionally disturbed at this idea).
“Highly unlikely,” Steve said, his favorite catchphrase. He always used it when he thought Beth was being overly ridiculous, which happened more often than one would think. Beth only rolled her eyes in response.
But Mary liked that idea. She imagined the indention of her tongue being left for hundreds of tourists to unknowingly see as they floated by in the years to come. She enjoyed thinking maybe she locked lips with a stranger through the wall of a cavern. The salt in her mouth turned to sparks.
Jessica Simmons is a senior undergraduate dance major at Stephen F. Austin State University. She is from Denison, TX and is currently minoring in creative writing. Her work has previously been published in Gravel, Polaris, HUMID, and Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine.