“Are you ready?” The voice from behind the curtain had a lilt to it, as if the question were a walk and the speaker were taking a step backward. An Asian accent with a touch of Queens.
“Um, sure.” Tim O’Connell nodded, though alone in the small room. He lay prone on the table, covered by only a thin towel, his clothes folded and piled neatly in the corner like a ream of paper. Going to a masseuse had been his girlfriend’s idea, after the second flare-up of what was turning into a back problem. A graphic designer, Monica Stevens went to yoga classes and understood the need for physical manipulation.
“Lumbosacral strain. There’s this place on Canal Street, Jin Back & Foot. They do great work. Someone at the studio recommended it. Cheap, too.” Monica had at once diagnosed the problem and prescribed the remedy. She did the same with laundry (try concentrated Tide) and his existential crises (buy a Trek bicycle and go riding with her).
He wasn’t the type who had any chronic conditions. And he was only thirty-one, for Chrissake. But after a day at the educational agency where he worked, when the pain nagged at him worse than his mother in Westchester, he decided to take Monica’s advice. When he called to make a four o’clock appointment for Saturday, someone at the other end of the line said “Okay.” But they barely took his name before they hung up, and he felt as if he’d left a message with a friend’s five-year-old kid.
Locating the place wasn’t so easy. The street was straight, but the angle was somehow wrong. A sign in slanted, Chinese-looking letters hung over a jewelry shop and a knock-off luggage storefront. In between the two establishments, a narrow staircase led up to the second floor, a snaking red arrow pointing the way. The door at the top was frosted glass with a replica of the outside sign, along with “Hours of Operations, Mun-Sun 10-10.” When he prodded at the door, it stuck, then gave with a jingle bells ring. Though it was still afternoon, an aquarium fluorescence lit the inside of the place. Refocusing took a moment. Straight ahead sat a squashed-looking couch, a Chinese calendar for 2002 hanging over it. Rates for services were posted on the wall, from $8 for 10 minutes to $42 for 60 minutes.
Two women in black jeans and T-shirts were seated on the couch, watching a small TV. One got up as soon as he arrived and disappeared into the rear of the establishment. From somewhere to the right in a curtained-off area came the sound of fleshy thumps. The remaining woman looked up and held his gaze. Her T-shirt read “NYC” in blue block letters, and though she was pale-skinned and slight, her arms looked—capable was the term Tim came up with. He stood there for a moment, words having temporarily deserted him. Finally a man behind a plywood counter on the left, which Tim hadn’t seen, asked, “May I help you?”
“Um, I think so.” For a moment, Tim thought he might have stumbled into the wrong place, a massage parlor offering happy endings, and for a moment, he entertained that prospect. But Monica wouldn’t have made such a mistake, and this was unquestionably Jin Back & Foot—unless another Jin was located in the vicinity. “I’m here for a four o’clock appointment.” He paused. “Tim.”
The man grunted assent. A pause floated in the air like one of the creatures from the aquarium—a sizable tank rested on a table near an alcove, holding three goldfish that weren’t quite goldfish. Then the man nodded at the woman on the couch, who stood up and gestured to a room past the alcove. “This way, please.”
Tim followed her down a short corridor into a tiny room with a massage table, a stand with what looked like toiletries, and space for almost nothing else.
“How . . . long?”
Hadn’t he conveyed this information when he’d called? He emitted his “dealing with incompetent people” sigh, useful at the office. “One hour. Sixty minutes.”
“Okay.” The woman gestured at the table. “Please . . . take off clothes.” She left the room, shutting the door behind her.
Stuck in the far wall were a few pegs with two bent hangers. Feeling as if he were in a doctor’s examination room, he slowly removed everything, lingering longest at his boxer briefs, ignoring the hangers and piling it all on top of his shoes. Then he lay face-down on the table and pulled the towel over himself as best he could. He didn’t really feel he was a massage person. His family wasn’t the huggy type, let alone touchy-feely. His father believed in a firm handshake, his mother in pecks on the cheek. The closest he’d come to a laying on of hands was when Monica occasionally asked him to rub her shoulders.
This would be an adventure. Or an embarrassment. Or something else.
A minute later came the question “Are you ready?” and Tim answered that he was.
He heard the padding of her feet. He couldn’t see much of anything, since he was lying face-down on the table, his head in a padded well, a wadding of paper towel fringing the edges. As she walked about, he imagined she was surveying him. Then she set what had to be an electronic timer, judging by the series of pings.
“You like . . . hard or soft?”
“Soft” seemed unmanly, so he told her “hard.” “My lower back . . . .” He tried to put his hand on the problem area, but in his position, that gave him a twinge.
“Okay.” She traced the area he’d indicated. “There?”
“Good.” She drew her palms across him lengthwise, as if he were a tablecloth she were smoothing out. It felt mildly pleasant, and he figured the whole session would be like this. When Monica asked how it had gone, he’d tell her “not bad,” and that would be the end of it.
Then the masseuse started to knead his shoulders, and an involuntary ah escaped from somewhere in his body. She dug in with her thumbs, moving down to his shoulder blades. Ahhh . . . . His muscles shifted as if settling into their proper place after weeks of cramped angles. She dwelt on his upper and middle back before descending to the injured area, then placed her elbow next to his problem spot and bore down. Something nearby gave way, which freed him up all over. He hadn’t known he was so tightly wound, but apparently he was. Instead of increasing the pain, she somehow stretched and pulled it away. Everywhere she touched felt first unyielding, then like the release of a hidden spring.
After he’d lost track of time, she pulled down the towel to his buttocks and stepped aside for a moment. Away from her hands, he felt exposed, more like a slab of flesh than sexy. He heard the action of a pump-squeeze bottle, and she was back. She spread some kind of lotion with her palms, like water sinking into desert soil. Then she was moving up and down his back, her fists as rollers. She was sure and methodical, with a pleasing symmetry. He groaned involuntarily.
“Yes.” He qualified, “It’s wonderful.”
“Good.” And she moved on to his arms, which she squeezed and released like sponges. But she asked few questions; in fact, she hardly talked at all, except to inquire whether raising his arms behind his back to an almost impossible angle was okay, or whether levering her thumbs—hard—just below where his neck met his skull was okay. From his vantage, all he could spy was a pair of feet in embroidered blue-and-yellow slippers.
At some point, she raised the towel back up, then pulled it away from one leg. She paid attention to his hamstrings and quadriceps, moving along the thick tendons. Encouraged by Monica, he did a little running and a little less bicycling; he was half in shape, half out. Moving down to his feet, the masseuse hurt him for the first time, digging in where there was little give. But he didn’t want to say anything.
She disappeared again, this time returning with a damp hot towel to clean the lotion off him. “Turn over,” she whispered, producing a pillow. As he wriggled around, he wondered what was coming next. But all she did was pump some more lotion and give him a facial rub. She pressed on his temples, thumbed his eyebrows, stroked his chin, and even addressed his earlobes, moving her fingers over them as if counting bills.
When the deet-deet-deet-deet of the timer came, Tim experienced a real pang. Somewhere in the middle of it all, he’d felt this might go on forever.
She hoisted his legs and pulled at them, lifted them higher and dropped them, three times. “Okay, finish.”
He lay still for a second, thinking about a post-massage world, outside the little room and the ministrations of the masseuse. It would be difficult, but possible. He just needed time to adjust. His lower back felt pain-free. He turned toward this—no other term for her—angel of mercy, who was already halfway out the door. “Thank you,” he called after her. “Thank you very much.”
“Sure,” she said. “Take your time.”
For a minute, he lay on the table, gathering himself, as if the masseuse had distributed his parts east, west, north, and south. When he finally sat up, he became aware of gravity again. He dressed slowly and carefully, feeling that sudden movement would ruin the effects of the massage, and he left the chamber with regret. The masseuse was washing up in the little alcove, but she came out to see him go. He paid in cash at the counter, where they gave him a little card with ten boxes in back, the first one stamped in red with a Chinese character. Fill in all ten, he was told, and he would get a free massage. When the masseuse offered him a paper cup of water, he fumbled again at his wallet, pondering the eternal question of how much to tip. When he produced a ten-dollar bill and offered it to her, she took it with a brief nod.
“So how’d it go?” Monica was perched on the big orange sling chair in her apartment, the last of the afternoon sunlight angling in from Clinton Street. She was petite but wiry, with elfin features that looked either sweet or no-nonsense, depending on whether she was asking for another glass of wine or demanding to know why he couldn’t meet her that evening. Tim had been taken by a flyer she’d posted, on which she’d printed a triptych of her in three yoga poses while reading a book. She’d made up one of her own called “the terrier.” They’d been going out for six months.
Responding to Monica’s question, he felt oddly wary, though nothing untoward had happened in that chamber. Three hours after the massage, the glow had dissipated, but he still enjoyed a greater freedom of movement, as if some invisible ligature had been severed. More than that, the masseuse had somehow slowed down time for him, and he was only gradually catching up to the pace in the rest of the world. It was incredible—how could he tell Monica that? Instead, he restricted himself to “It was fine,” an unconscious echo of Monica’s refrain, applied to everything from takeout at Tandoori Heaven to their lovemaking on Sunday afternoons. Monica was limber, if a little programmatic.
“But it helped, right?” Monica placed a hand on his back, not the same as the masseuse’s touch. This felt proprietary.
“Sure. A lot. I mean, the pain’s not totally gone”—even as she scrutinized him, he felt a minor twinge—“but I think she worked out the kink or whatever it was.”
“Good, good.” Monica gave an approving smile. “It’s not for me, but if you’ve got back issues . . . . You might even have to go there a few times.”
“Sure, I figured that.” He’d already made a mental note to head there again next month, but now he mentally confirmed it. His lumbar region agreed.
Meanwhile, time moved on after this one-hour detour and picked up speed. He and Monica went to a new Asian fusion restaurant called Mundo, where the hot and spicy noodles were disappointingly neither. Sex on Sunday went fine, thank you, this time in Tim’s apartment, which was larger but badly furnished, at least according to Monica, who also wanted him to replace his futon mattress with box springs. Work at the AEA, the American Educational Association, grew seasonally hectic, with policy initiatives slated for the end of April. Tim’s job included writing grant proposals and coordinating everything that needed it. He also dealt with technology in the classroom, which he wasn’t entirely qualified to address. His poli sci major from Rutgers hadn’t equipped him for anything in particular, certainly not political consultancy. He had secured this job, which might or might not be his career, through a friend of his parents, who were both high school history teachers in Westchester.
Never that athletic, he banished the demons of inactivity with a brisk walk every now and then, or a bike ride accompanied by Monica. Given his tetchy back, he added a few stretches to his morning routine, supervised by You-Know-Who, who advised him, “Think of yourself as longer.” She also invited him to her Hatha yoga class, but he declined. Instead, whenever he wanted peace of mind, he shut his eyes and replayed the scene of the massage.
And then it was May already, and his back started acting up again. No idea what triggered it, but it was the same as before: a spasm that seemed to pulse like an angry little sun. Bending over backwards helped, but it didn’t go away and perfectly justified contacting Jin Back & Foot for an appointment. Once more, he found himself talking to a laconic voice at the other end of the line that okayed his request for a session. At four o’clock on Saturday, he found himself entering the aquarium darkness again.
Should he have requested the same therapist? He didn’t even know her name, and he hadn’t thought to ask. In fact, he wasn’t even sure what she looked like. “You’re so oblivious sometimes,” Monica had told him, talking about either his failure to respond to texts or mis-remembering her favorite flowers (hyacinths, not hydrangeas). His parents had told him something similar when he was growing up: how he didn’t always respond, or was it just not listening? Selective deafness, heedlessness, a wall—whatever it was, it served a protective function, insulating him from a hundred sharp little decisions as he made his way from gawky adolescent to unsure adult.
He did think to mention his lower back problem, indicating where. Just reaching provoked a twinge.
He received an unsympathetic nod and a question. “Are you ready?”
Whoever it was began the same way as on the first occasion, smoothing him down, then clamping hard between his shoulders and neck. If it wasn’t the first woman, it was her twin. Once again, the release was immediate, as if he’d been scrunched in a cubby hole for a month and was only just now able to unbend. Ten, fifteen minutes in, he began to feel like an expanding world, drifting in the cosmos. Just above his equator was an island, a puzzle of pain that the masseuse mostly navigated around.
Then she dug her thumbs into the base of his spine, solving everything. “Okay?”
“Yes.” He lost all tightness.“Yes. Yes.”
Everything she did felt right. This time, he experienced not suspense but anticipation: the almost liquid shift that would come when she moved up and down his spine; the elbow digs into his trapezius muscles, which supported the wings he flew with in his dreams. At the end this time, she left a few minutes to pinch and press his feet, so hard that he recoiled. “Sleep better tonight,” she told him, nearly poking holes in his arches.
Afterwards, when she offered him the cup of water, he took a closer look at her, trying to memorize her features. She had a slight build, fine-boned, but with arms thickened from her job. Except that her pale face was flushed from exertion, she looked neither curious nor bored.
He downed the water and tendered his ten-dollar tip. “Excuse me, but what’s your name?”
She hesitated. The distance between them increased, as if she were bowing in the wrong direction. “Lin-da,” she finally pronounced. Or something that sounded like that name, and when he repeated it, she nodded. When he left to re-enter the world, he carried the two syllables away with him.
The third time he visited, a month later, he had no specific complaint but felt compressed, the confinement of his daily routine compounded by a lack of exercise. He hadn’t even been stretching lately. He’d recently quarreled with Monica over how much they weren’t getting out. He knew this was his fault. Because of downsizing at AEA, he’d picked up extra duties, including liaison work with education boards, and seemed to be working one and a half jobs. Some of the stress had localized in the usual area. From outside the chamber, Linda inquired, “Are you ready?” About ten minutes into the massage, she asked, “Okay . . . if walk on back?”
“Um, sure.” Tim had heard of this technique. He pictured a little girl trudging over his lumbar curve. He levered himself sideways to see Linda step aside, slip out of her sandals, and hoist herself onto the massage table. For one uncertain moment, she seemed to be trying to balance overhead. Then she stepped on him.
He felt pressed into the table by a giant’s hand, and a cry escaped him. Linda relented, then came back harder than before, again and again, her feet treading up and down his back. She dug her toes into his tension spots till his muscles felt like they’d give way. She trampled all protest with each step, and in the intervals when he could squirm, he worried that she might slip and cripple him in her fall. After what seemed like a day, she dismounted and went back to her regular ministrations. Only after the massage was over and he was dressing to leave, did he notice the metal pole overhead, which she must have clung to. He decided not to tell Monica about this part of the massage, and never did. But some nights when he couldn’t get to sleep, he shut his eyes and imagined himself prone on a great plain, flattened beneath a giant woman’s foot.“Are you ready?” came a voice from above.
He became a regular. One Saturday afternoon at Jin Back & Foot, Linda wasn’t there, so he got another woman. What difference would it make? In fact, she was friendlier and with a warmer touch, but her hands didn’t fit his body, or she rubbed him the wrong way. She went across rather than down and didn’t even achieve symmetry. He said nothing, not wanting to come across as a back seat driver—“A little to the right. Watch that curve!” But the depth of his disappointment surprised him, the gulf between expectation and eventuality. When he next called up, he specifically arranged for Linda to work on him. His insistence seemed to amuse the man behind the counter.
That fall, he received a sort of promotion at the company. He was now overseeing a juniorette named Debra performing what he’d done at entry-level. He attended more meetings and even ran a few webinars, finding he was good at getting idiosyncratic types to cohere into a group. He monitored affiliates like Teaching Teachers and Uncommon Ground. He acquired some authority, though he felt awkward exercising it.
Meanwhile, his relationship with Monica didn’t progress so much as veer this way and that: some serious arguments, mainly over the future, which he tended not to plan, but which she studied like a Google Maps route. Her career in graphic design had detoured into low-end website construction, and she was determined to get back on the turnpike, as she put it (she’d grown up in Matawan, NJ). She channeled her frustration into irritation over Tim’s new haircut, unhappiness with the Thai takeout. March would make it two years since they’d met.
Around the time that Tim got a real promotion, to associate director, he pulled a muscle in his back again. He hadn’t been doing anything strenuous, just reaching for a ream of paper on an overhead shelf. This time, the pain was acute, and possibly hereditary. His father had the same issues—“the O’Connell back,” as his father described it during a family dinner in Larchmont. His mother endured arthritis.
“Really?” Tim rubbed the afflicted spot, but even mild pressure hurt. Monica was there with him, exuding not quite the proper amount of sympathy. “How come you never told me?” he asked his father.
O’Connell Senior shrugged, his shoulders narrower than they used to be. “You never asked.”
His parents were aging, his father looking gray, his mother a little frail. As for himself, was this the first step into middle age? He felt his walk was losing some of its bounce.
He tried some stretching exercises with Monica, who lay horizontally alongside him.
“Take a deep breath, and focus on your chakra. You should be aligned with the floor.”
“I’m on the floor.”
“Not that way. This way.” Monica also wanted him to bicycle a certain way, speak with more enunciation, and dress in a style she called “creative conservative” (she’d bought him a dozen button-down shirts). She was inflexible in all areas but her body, but it had taken him a while to see that.
He debated whether to keep his appointment with Linda that month, since the idea of putting pressure on the spot scared him. Habit won out: he went every month; that was what he did. When he explained the situation to Linda, she nodded and asked, as usual, “Are you ready?” In fact, the massage helped, easing the surrounding stiffness at least for a few magical days after treatment. The underlying pain subsided with proper treatment (ice, heating pad; repeat) and the passage of time.
That December, after a series of disagreements over everything and nothing, Tim broke up with Monica. Or she broke up with him. They couldn’t even agree on that. Without quite receiving another promotion, he started taking on more responsibility at work, like being handed plate after plate in a balancing act. Yet he would never become the director, a fussy but gregarious individual named Bert Scanwell, who wore bespoke Turnbull & Asser shirts and who had a way of befriending important people.
Tim was half-resigned to his status, though he hadn’t quite realized it yet. Time was putting its stamp on him: a hunch in his shoulders; a reliance on routine, including his monthly massage and a ten-minute nap after lunch. Two days before his thirty-fifth birthday, he met Laura, who worked as a psychologist at Montefiore. She understood him better than Monica ever did, perhaps too well. They married a year later, and two years after that, Nathaniel was born. Laura wanted another child. Seeing the peevish creature that Nathan became, Tim didn’t. But it put a permanent crimp in the marriage, and Laura was often publicly wistful. At Jin Back & Foot, he thought about sexual release, especially during the cramped year after Nathan was born. But he didn’t want to ruin the one perfect thing in his life. Instead, he had an affair with an office temp named Mary, over so quickly that it assumed the dimensions of a dream.
When Nathan was seven, Bert Scanwell retired, but Tim didn’t get the directorship. He felt as if he’d lost his footing in a slow dance where he’d memorized the steps. But after a few months, a headhunter found him a position at Edu-Tech, a national school advocacy group funded by a Scarsdale-based hedge fund manager. At forty-five, he was one of the oldest people there. Tim would come home tired from commuting (they now lived in Mamaroneck). Whenever he felt an ache emanating from the base of his spine, he knew it was time for therapy, though in fact he went every month no matter what the state of his back.
Jin Back & Foot endured, even as other establishments along Canal Street came and went. Acupuncture, aromatherapy, reflexology, cupping, Chinese herbs, hot rocks—all these therapies sprouted up and cross-pollinated. Not at Jin, whose fees remained the same, year after year, just as Linda remained yoked to the establishment. Did she grow less spry or simply more deliberate in her movements? When he felt guilty, such as after a quarrel with Nate over household chores, he would tip more. Her English hadn’t improved much, but then she didn’t talk much, anyway. “Are you ready?” and “Finish now” sometimes marked the sum of her contributions. When Tim occasionally asked her questions, such as where she lived and whether she had family in the States, she would toss out answers that weren’t consistent. She lived in Flushing alone, with a roommate in Sunset Park, with a sister in Brooklyn. When he inquired further, she would smile faintly and shake her head.
Once or twice, Linda seemed preoccupied, missing a spot or two, but never explained what was wrong. As she grew older, her breath grew audible in the chamber. Her slight figure was still capable of bearing down heavily, but one month he spotted gray in her hair, which soon reverted to black. As Tim neared fifty, and she ritually asked if it was too hard, he wouldn’t admit it. But he finally asked her to stop walking on his back, partly since the spine cracks had become frightening, but also because he worried about her balance. Prone on the table at the end of the massage, he would slit open his eyes and see Linda looking away, into her own private place.
He still adored, at the end of each session, the feeling of slowly coming back into the world. His time at Jin became ever more precious, a time and space away from job and family. The visit had long ago hardened into ritual, down to fastening each button on his shirt afterwards, from the bottom to the top; the proffered paper cup of water; the slow descent downstairs to street level and the return to real-time. He now went every two weeks.
Tim was still in many ways oblivious. Laura had taken to sighing long and deeply, with seemingly no exhale. When Nate was thirteen, she asked for a divorce. At fifty, Tim had a new girlfriend, Susan, who disapproved of his frequent visits to a massage parlor. She also didn’t like Thai food. He no longer wore a ring on his finger, but Linda didn’t comment. Did her hands linger in certain areas? It was hard to tell. Six months later, without his even half-trying, a high school English teacher whom Tim met a New Year’s party became his second wife, Donna, and Nate went to Andover.
For over a year, Tim had been the vice president at Edu-Tech. When it merged with School Aid, he received a raise but no promotion. Why did he bother? he sometimes wondered. Recently his parents had both died of cancer, within a month of each other. Donna, who had a talent for extracting romance from the unlikeliest of situations, said it was sad but sweet. She was ten years younger than Tim and hadn’t yet started on what he saw as the Long Decline. He often felt he was growing clumsier, and he developed an unaccountable tremor in his left hand, accompanied by an occasional loss of balance. He blamed it on overwork and fatigue.
Tim was in late middle age by the time he learned he had Parkinson’s, after several incorrect diagnoses. The drug Sinemet helped some, though they kept having to adjust the dosage. Massage assuaged some of the discomfort, even if he could no longer take much pressure. He ascended the stairs to Jin Back & Foot with a cane.
Linda, once so supple, had developed arthritis, but kept working. Tim made a joke about the massage therapist who needed massage, and for once heard her laugh, a throaty, almost painful sound that seemed to derive from her core. He began to tip her a lot more, and she repaid him by coming up with different moves to relieve his suffering. One of them involved pinching his toes; another involved pulling his hands behind his head. Near the end of the massage, she would sometimes turn him face-up and squeeze his head in the crook of her armpit. When he exhaled, her breathed into her. This led to a recurrent dream of his, in which she controlled all his bodily functions and slowly led him back to health.
But his Parkinson’s progressed. He often experienced cognition problems, like a mental loss of balance, that led him to take early retirement. He found time for reflection, as if staring into a slightly murky wading pool. What had his life added up to? Must a life total something? At home, Donna was supportive but said over and over, “There’s only so much I can do.” She extended her arms, her fingers long and thin but without much force, splayed in a manual bouquet. Tim counted on Linda to bring him back to life and went every week. Increasingly compromised, he often tripped and was told he needed a wheelchair. He refused, but at times he wished for an end to the debility. Those strong hands that kneaded, stroked, and soothed, could they also squeeze him into darkness? He had dreams about that, as well.
The last time he visited, he took an eternity to climb the stairs. The tide of his blood washed in and dribbled out. He steadied himself with shaking hands. He arrived in front of the door and pushed in. The bells rang; two women on the couch looked up. The undersea fluorescence still shone, the fish in the tank making its slow circuit as if on a guided track. Linda came out from some interior recess and greeted him. The chamber awaited, off in the back. He slowly divested himself of his clothes. Lying prone, he stared downward into the dark, through the hole in the table. He had been coming here for how many years, exactly? He couldn’t recall. He tried to turn over but found it difficult, so he just lay there in silence. After a brief interval came the question from behind the faded curtain, “Are you ready?”