The masseuse and the client quietly walked up the stairs in the old house until they came to the back bedroom turned treatment room. The uncovered window let in the slanted afternoon sunshine from Water St. where skateboarders and dogs went by and engines revved from the mechanic’s shop next door. It was hot enough to make a stranger think that the warm air would carry on through the evening, but locals knew that in two hours’ time the streets would be sucking up fog from the ocean with the same ferocity as the hookah bar patrons down the street.
It was the kind of place that the client, an older woman in her fifties would never have come to of her own volition. Women like this only came to a place like this when brought along by old friends that they’re too timid to say no to. She was wearing Ann Taylor palazzo pants in a misguided attempt to appear bohemian for the occasion, which only made her look more mainstream and corporatized. She radiated an earnest desire to receive serenity directly into her temples, even if her bare feet on the beige wall to wall carpeting revealed an uneasiness about being on fibers that had gone unshampooed for who knows how long. And it wasn’t just that they didn’t give patrons sanitized slides for their feet. Nothing about the place implied “upscale” or “professional” in the slightest. There was no one going around in a uniform or wearing a name tag, no design scheme surpassing ad hoc, no one working there who was ever told not to eat left over pasta in front of a client. Out back was the clothing optional mixed gender hot tubs, sweat lodge, and silent meditation garden. Out there people sat in a congenial soup where genitals stood in for the peas and carrots.
The masseuse was also bare footed, but her feet were not unadorned. Looped over her second toes and tied around her ankles was a rust-colored crocheted type of foot embellishment, like decorative sandal tops. They were the sort of thing that is only conceived of and sold on Etsy or at civic craft fairs. She was a sturdily formed woman in her late twenties with the tubular limbs of a Diego Rivera subject and round unblinking eyes like a Kewpie doll made adult. The piece leather string wound around the thick bun at the nape of her neck was so humble one could be left to wonder if she was the kind of person who would find Burning Man her cup of tea. The energy she gave off was more like someone who had gone to South America for a gap year and then had the realization that this so-called gap was authentic life.
It was the tacit understanding that they were meeting for a transaction, whether it be relaxation or energy alignment, that brought them together in that room on that afternoon. And their conversation most likely would have been limited to instructions by the masseuse to the client to undress while she left the room for two or three minutes, but then, while the client was still stiff on the table with the uncomfortable knowledge of her body, naked under strange sheets and hands in the less than well appointed room, the masseuse knocked over the small bottle of lavender scented oil into the crook of the client’s neck and right shoulder.
“Wow. I’m so sorry,” said the masseuse, deftly dabbing her client with a towel as though she were a dinner guest who’s spilled balsamic on a shirt front. The unrehearsed utterance revealed that she was foreign born, Eastern European or perhaps Brazilian.
“No problem,” said the woman on the table, who gave a slight upper register laugh. The massage continued for a few sitar thaat progressions, until the client stiffened shyly, bringing her fingernail just inside the tip of her nostril. “Sorry. It’s just that I…I’ve got an itch in my nose. It’s almost like fur or something. I just can’t get rid of it.”
“Oh, are you allergic to cats by any chance?” asked the masseuse, as if she was breezily chatting up a stranger on a bus.
“Well, yes, I am sort of,” said the client, straining under the pressure of having to “be chill”.
“You’ve never met Chowder? He’s like the little Buddha around here.”
The woman on the table rubbed the cartilage in her nose back and forth a few times in response, and then took a deep breath and forced all the air out of there lungs in a determined exertion to relax. The single-paned windows at her feet funneled in noise from the street that landed on her sacrum as post-it notes of anxiety between the evening thrums of the sitar. She tried to incorporate the technique of reframing. She imagined the cars passing by as gusts of wind, giant phoenixes, peaceful airborne whales, a vacuum that sucked away cellulite. And then she heard other music, and it grew louder.
“Is that a tuba?” she asked the masseuse. Hands paused on scapula.
“Did anyone give you something to eat out back?” asked the masseuse.
“No, listen, there’s a drum now.”
The masseuse removed her hands and left the music to trespass onto the woman’s spine, then turned off the sitar. Trumpets and violins shot onto the ceiling, then masses of guitars. Mexican marching band thought the woman on the table with her eyes still shut. There was a circus-like quality to it as well, but perhaps that was because the band was so clearly approaching in a linear way so that she immediately imagined them being led by a majorette of some sort, and in her mind it was the mouse from Dumbo. Were there Klezmer characteristics to the music as well? Was it just that the tuba imparted a Balkan type of sound and she was too stupid too know? Was she racist for only listening to non-tuba present mariachi music at white people Cantinas?
The band was out front of the window now, filling up the room and pushing the ceiling and walls of the old house apart at the seams and letting in more cat hair and eucalyptus leaves and exhaust fumes with every cymbal crash. The woman on the table held her breath and pressed her pubic bone into the table until finally the band dipped into the fog behind an ambulance siren.
“I don’t know,” said the masseuse. “It’s not Cinco de Mayo or anything. The street isn’t even blocked off as far as I can see.” She turned the sitar back up. “After an interruption like that, I always think it’s best to work on the adrenals, ya?”
The woman on the table moved her lower jaw back and forth.
“And to do that,” said the masseuse as she jiggled a wooden drawer open in the corner of the room, “I’m going to use this ruby, which will settle your emotions while keeping the balance of your color rays steady.”
The woman on the table felt the gemstone between her shoulder blades. The ruby was held, precariously, like a tiny tightrope walker, while the woman’s body, the audience, held its collective breath in an effort to keep it aloft. And then the tent lost all of it’s air and the ruby tumbled.
“You know, I did pay for a deep tissue massage, and I feel like I’ve really gotten, well, no massage yet actually.”
“Yes,” said the masseuse, “and I can definitely go in there will my elbows, no problem. And we can start the clock again.”
“That would be great.”
“But before we do, could I just say, that I think that you really just need love?”
“Excuse me?” said the woman on the table, lifting herself up to her elbows. She prepared to laugh, to throw the sheets off. She imagined herself downstairs, banging on the front desk mini gong, demanding her money back. And then the masseuse pressed a thumb into the woman’s third eye and the thought of all this became overwhelming. The corners of the room faded into India ink and her cheek was back on the pillow.
At some point the masseuse removed her hands and held them over the woman’s neck, without touching her skin. An olive pit started to form in the woman’s sternum. She watched it turn over, and just as she noticed it begin to grow, her muscles clenched and she began shaking, almost as in an epileptic fit. The masseuse held her down, pressed her cheek to the back of the woman’s head, and when she had finally finished shuddering, she whispered, “Stick out your tongue,” before releasing several droplets from a vial. “Essence of Five Flowers,” she said. “Now do three to five rounds of the hot tub followed by the cold plunge, and don’t forget to drink lots of water. Take your time getting dressed.”
When the masseuse had left the room, the client laughed at herself, there naked on the table with tear-stained cheeks and cat hair clinging to the nape of her neck. She got up and put on the her kimono. Out back, she passed her friend Nancy, dimpled buttocks splayed out over a towel on the lawn. Then, she removed her kimono and let two old men with ponytails see her entire body before she slipped into the water with them.