I’d eradicated the cold and flu germs on the handholds of most of the large equipment when Izzie motioned me back toward the therapy room. I had to like her; she had a hiring policy that I was benefiting from, but she seemed to have another policy, one of trial by fire, that was making me nervous.
Her eyes, as they met mine when I walked into the therapy room, probably said an awful lot of things I couldn’t read because I didn’t know her well enough. Ken was lying chest down on a portable massage table, wearing only his shorts. His body was still and his head was turned away. I was looking at him when I heard Izzie close the door softly behind her. We were alone.
Massage is an unusual choice for a man like me because it requires that you remain silent with most of your clients, and I’m normally a very talkative guy. Cooper always accused me of wanting to be the center of attention and never shutting up, even when it was in my best interest. While age and—possibly—maturity made me less likely to blurt out whatever was on my mind these days, I’d found that caring for another person physically, touching their skin, smoothing knotted muscles, pushing and pulling on the very stuff of which people are made, brought a kind of contemplative, content silence that I for once didn’t have to fill.
No one was more surprised by this than I was.
I went to work. “I wonder if it would be all right if we began with you faceup,” I murmured in a voice I’d cultivated just for this purpose, something between graveyard shift jazz disc jockey and grief counselor. “I’d like to finish off with the large muscles in your back. Unless… I mean, if you have sinus trouble or back problems and have trouble resting in a facedown position and then getting up…”
“No, facedown or faceup, either way,” he replied. He didn’t seem to be looking forward to this as much as some clients did. He began the awkward process of shifting from facedown to faceup on a wobbly table. I held it steady while he turned, and given his size and level of coordination, it wasn’t easy. Wordlessly, I offered my arm to anchor him.
I found a pump bottle full of body lotion, a kind I liked that smelled like rosemary and eucalyptus, and put some on my hands to warm it. Neither Ken nor I spoke further, as I did his shoulders, arms, and pecs. I focused on his hands, partly because it seemed to relax him, and partly because they were callused from using the crutches, and it seemed to me his forearms and hands were probably bearing a lot of his weight. I knew just from manipulating his arms that his shoulders would be stretched so taut it might even hurt him for me to work on them.
“Tell me if the pressure I use here, or anywhere at all, is too uncomfortable,” I told him, as I used my thumbs on the palms of his hands and gently stretched them open.
“It’s fine,” he said. His whole body was still tight and tense. So much so that his shoulders were drawn up toward his ears, and I realized that even if I was bringing tears to his eyes he probably wouldn’t tell me. I had to look at his face for cues. I came around and did the other side, working silently and still watching him closely.
One of the first things my mother asked when I started learning massage techniques was what I thought about when I worked. My mom was my guinea pig, the first person I ever worked on, allowing me to practice on her even when I didn’t know what I was doing, and was still reading aloud from muscle diagrams. I told her I mostly thought of things like how nice the person will feel when I’m done, or whether I’m managing to make them feel good when I rub their feet or hands.
It was a pleasure, back then, to go back home while my dad was at work and do something for my mother that she might have considered a luxury far beyond her reach. It was good to do something we didn’t have to talk through.
She was always afraid that my father would find out and get angry, as if she weren’t holding up her end of a marital bargain they had, as if she were indulging in some sort of frivolous and extravagant pastime while she should be darning his socks. Of all the things I hated about my family, the worst was leaving my mother in Wisconsin when I came out here to California. I felt bad about leaving her alone, because despite her thirty-year marriage to my father, my mother had always been alone.
Though I talked to her frequently, my mother continued to lead a fairly loveless life, and although she knew and understood why I had left, it felt a little like leaving her in a burning house, saving myself at her expense. I had to remind myself it was her choice to stay with my father every time I thought about it.
Ken must have been watching me closely as well because, just as I allowed the tiniest flicker of a frown, I heard his voice, almost hoarse and rusty with disuse, ask, “What goes through your head when you do that?”
“My head?” I asked, stalling for time. I wasn’t going to talk about my family. “When I’m not thinking the names of the muscles, I’m imagining that I’m making you feel good.”
“Hm,” he grunted. I was working on the muscles around his forearms, which were knotted and stiff under my fingers like lumpy Play-Doh. He exhaled a deep sigh then, and I thought to myself, gotcha.
I continued to work, moving on to his legs; to the four muscles that make up the quadriceps and the muscles that wrap around the shinbone, although I usually work the calves from the back. I gave the same attention to his feet and ankles that I’d given his hands and wrists, stretching and smoothing the plantar fascia, and separating and pulling on his toes. Each toe was long and strong and had two or three dark hairs struggling out of the knuckles. It was a rather fine foot actually, for an athlete. I wondered if he’d ever had an injury to his feet or ankles; for such a jumbo-sized man they seemed to be rather slim and delicate.
As I did this, his legs fell open a little, his muscles relaxing as I soothed away the tension. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t attracted. He was beautiful, and I indulged for a brief second in the fantasy that he was my man and I was relaxing him as a prelude to making love.
I caught his eyes on me and looked down. I’m sure if the light had been better he’d have seen my face heat up.
I indicated without talking that he should turn over, again offering my arm. He rolled onto his stomach, and I started work on the backs of his legs. I often lose myself when I work, moving from one muscle group to the next, working my way in a pattern across the human body. If I’ve learned anything at all in the last few years, it might be that the body is a remarkable machine.
The human body can be strong and fluid, soft and pliable, hairy or smooth, scarred or pristine, young or old, and yet whatever shape it comes in, it’s also capable of amazing feats of self-healing. That’s what I was thinking about as I stroked the bulky trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles along Ken’s back and sides, when I felt the first tremors in the fine, large body beneath my hands.
Ken was crying.
That happened sometimes. It had happened to me once or twice when I was giving and getting massage in school. I had a friend in San Francisco where I interned who did acupressure and Reiki. Among the spiritual massage set, it wasn’t uncommon to hear stories of emotional meltdown, and it happened to me frequently enough that I kept going, assuming he’d tell me to stop if he no longer wanted to feel my touch.
“Shit.” He turned his face away then, pulling up his arms to hide it.
“It’s all right,” I told him. “Sometimes that happens.”
Ken merely shook his head. For a while, he lay there, crying, and I continued, finishing up the imaginary grid on his body and coming around to finish with more soothing touches to his scalp. He was still trembling, I thought, although he made no sound. When I was done I left my hand on his shoulder and just waited for a while until his tears subsided. Afterward, he shook his head again, flexing his traps, the muscles of his broad shoulders, as if he could shake off his mood.
“I’d like to go get you some water to drink,” I told him quietly. He looked up at me, frowning. “After a massage, it’s really very important to hydrate.”
“You sound like a funeral director.”
I shrugged. “Wait here.” I went out to ask Izzie if she had a plastic cup or something I could use to take Ken water.
She went to a back room and brought me a bottled water from some sort of mineral spring. “Here,” she said. “There are always waters back there; feel free to get one whenever you need it.
“What do I owe you?” I asked, putting a hand to my back pocket for my wallet.
“Nothing. If it’s for you or your clients, just take one.”
I grinned. The last gym I worked in had charged me two-fifty a bottle and made me pay for the water I gave my clients. “Thanks.” I returned to the therapy room and found Ken awkwardly putting on his shirt.
“Here,” I said, holding out the water. He must have thought I was going to try to help him dress because he snapped at me.
“I can still dress myself.”
“I was…” I held out the water when he looked up. “Here’s your water.”
Ken cleared his throat. “Sorry,” he muttered, looking at the floor.
He was slipping his arms through the sleeves of a dark blue and tan Hawaiian shirt, pulling it closed over strong muscles and skin that was firm but pale. Crisp dark hair whorled around pink nipples. His neck still had the ghost of a tan where it met the collar of his shirt. When I looked at his face, his eyes were red and puffy, and he didn’t seem to know where they should land.
“Thank you,” he said. “Sorry, I—”
“No worries,” I told him.
“I’ll get out of your hair.” He turned away.
“Seriously, Ken. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about; that happens to a lot of people.”
“Not to me.” He started for the door.
I put a hand on his arm to stop him. “People really do have emotional responses to massage. It isn’t uncommon.”
“I thought you were just saying that.” He slumped back down onto the massage table and let out a breath. “You’re the first person I’ve met since the accident that I don’t mind touching me.”
“Me?” That was odd.
“I find you… People are touching me all the time. It’s like I’m a slab of beef they’re preparing for a meal. They make me nervous and angry. I find you…peaceful.”
I snorted. “Okay, I know you’re the first person who’s ever called me peaceful.” I sat down on a stool near him, letting him know that he wasn’t odd for his reaction and supporting him through the aftermath as best I could.
For a minute, he seemed content to sit there with me in silence. I watched an amazing number of emotions play over his handsome face, most of which I couldn’t begin to decipher. It was a good face—intelligent and open—and I tried very hard not to succumb to my attraction to it.
“Have you ever met anyone and right away you thought you’d like to spend time with them? Like they were tranquil water and you wanted to dive in? The minute you put your hands on me—”
I still had my hand on his arm, and I tried not to jerk it away. “Whoa. You don’t know anything about me, Ken,” I warned him. “I’m not who you think I am.”
Izzie might not be happy about it, but I decided that whether she liked it or not, Ken deserved to be told about my past. I had the strongest feeling that if I didn’t tell him—if he revealed any more of himself—he would feel betrayed. If I told him about myself—about the accident—and he left and never spoke to me again, so be it. Better that than him thinking I was hiding something.
“Look,” I said. “There’s something you need to know. I really want to help you, and I think I have something to offer you as you recover from your accident. But if you find out later rather than sooner, I think you’ll—”
“Izzie told me you’re gay,” he interrupted. “If that’s what this is about, I don’t have a problem with that.”
I was speechless for a minute. “No. That’s not it.” Why had she told him that? “No. I was in an accident.”
“You too?” He pulled back and looked me over as though trying to see where I’d been injured.
“Yes, but… I mean…” I closed my eyes. It never, ever got easier. “This is so fucking hard. I was the cause of the accident, Ken. I was drunk. I cost someone their life. I’m the reason someone is grieving for a child. I went to jail for it.”
It was as if he couldn’t comprehend it, but when he finally did, he blew out a breath. “You?”
He yanked his arm away from me. “You fucking bastard. Mr. Compassion.”
While not unexpected, a man of his size barking at me like that in an enclosed space was a lot to take in. I backed up against the door. “What the hell—”
He held his body rigid as he looked me over contemptuously. “So now you’re out, and it’s over? You’ve done your time and you can move on, and we’re all supposed to play like nothing ever happened? How does that feel, to start over with a new slate after you killed someone?”
“How do you think?” I tried to keep my voice down. “How do you fucking think it feels?”
“I think it must feel a helluva lot better than waking up from a coma and remembering your best friend is dead.”
I closed my eyes. “I imagine it does.” I spoke so softly I doubted he heard me over his agitated breathing.
“And now you’re what? Giving free massages? Pretending to know what people are going through? Giving advice?”
“That’s not what this is. I just want to help. I’m sorry, Ken.”
“Damn fucking straight you’re sorry. For a minute, I could remember what it was like to feel again.” He put his head in his hands. “It was like being human. I’ve felt like meat for so long.”
Ken was breathing as though he’d run a mile. I swallowed hard. “What do you mean ‘meat’?”
“I was conscious for a few minutes while they cut us out of the car. My friend Amy was dead. Staring. Her chest had been crushed. She… I’ll never forget it. I realized then we’re only meat.”
“We’re more than just that.” But I knew. I knew exactly what he meant. There were people who never find that out, but I wasn’t one of them.
“But when it’s all over, that’s all that’s left, isn’t it? Since then, I feel like walking meat.” I couldn’t begin to know what to say to that. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of both hands, looking so tired my heart broke for him. “I’ve been so angry. I’ve made everyone who ever loved me miserable, and here you come along, the embodiment of everything I hate, and you’re the one person I’m drawn to.”
“I can help you, if you’ll let me,” I tried approaching him and put a hand back on his arm.