She is naked beneath the sheet, lying face down.
I feel a little bit powerful, because she cannot see me.
With no eyes on me, I am invisible. As my hands move down on her back, I look over at the family photographs on the bedroom bureau. They are black and white, almost sepia, and in ornate silver frames that wrap around the images with swirling shapes. I wonder how many generations of her family have enjoyed such wealth.
It's the day before Thanksgiving and I am at 61st Street and 3rd Avenue. I am a massage therapist, and I work mainly for a company that caters to clients with in-home appointments. The company delivers a table, complete with sheets, essential oils, lotions, and a stool—everything I need to perform massage therapy in the comfort of the client's home. They pay for their comfort; I get paid to suspend mine for 60 to 90 minutes at a time.
So far, her body is one I've felt before. There is a general lack of tense fascia, save for the usual rocky points on top of her shoulders. Her long flowing hair is down, and she doesn't seem to mind when my oily hands get stuck in the loose ends. I've already seen her naked, since she completely disrobed while explaining to me which areas bother her the most.
They like to do that—the rich women of the Upper East Side. They like to leave their hair down and take off their clothes before you've left the room. It simply goes with the territory. People are strange, no matter what economic class they call their own.
It's not just Manhattan women with free weekdays who feel this comfortable with me. On a Friday evening last spring, I found myself in the family apartment of a Hasidic woman on South 9th Street in Williamsburg—one of the last holdouts of the Jewish population as their neighborhood gets swallowed up by hipsters.
The first time I came here, the woman had holed up in the master bedroom getting makeshift pedicures and waxing sessions from a single Asian woman. I was expected to set up my massage table in the space between the two full size beds and the clunky, wooden dressers. There were mere inches to move around the table. I had refused to go back.
The next time, I'm in a child's bedroom. They had moved a few toys and small pieces of furniture around, and I'm left with ample space. All this because the client wanted me back, and no one else. The attention makes me feel appreciated, but I can't put my finger on why I feel uncomfortable.
This client disrobes after I leave the room. During the session, she occasionally shouts in Yiddish to other family members asking her questions from the other side of the locked door.
Soft and pale, her body feels like wet bread dough that I am kneading into a shape. Her back has almost no palpable tension to it. Her cloistered life must have allowed her to avoid many of the stresses of New York City. I feel one small knot along her right scapula and shoulder. Thank god she isn't perfect.
While face up, she asks that I work on her stomach. Most Americans don't ask for abdominal massage. They're too repressed for that. I'm taken aback that this strict Hasidic woman wants me to. As my hands form a wave across her belly, I wonder if her family knows that she does this. Perhaps this is the one time when she can be free of tradition—naked, unencumbered, open.
In the final minutes, she asks if I can massage her head through her headscarf. While doing so, I look at her face. A small but visible smile forms as the sky grows darker outside. After the sun goes down on a Friday, I'll no longer be allowed to remain in her world anymore.
I wonder if they know I'm watching them. Listening to them.
My x-ray eyes notice everything in a client's home. On a chilly Saturday evening in October, I have no home to examine. The client is a real estate mogul. His name is on the outside of the building (no, it's not Trump). The building is part of the UN residence complex and I am in the basement, where he has a full gym, steam room/sauna, changing rooms, and a lap swimming pool. He also has a private massage room that looks like any luxury spa's might. Beneath the piped-in music is a table with sheets, oil warmers, supplies, and a refrigerator with small bottles of water. It couldn't be easier for me.
He is younger than I picture him to be, and wearing a robe. Luckily, the popularity of disrobing early among wealthy Manhattanites seems to be limited to the women. He mentions that he likes very deep pressure on his back, but asks me to lighten up around his shoulders and neck. I am taken aback, since people typically take the deepest pressure on their upper back. It's his massage, so I abide. His back is cement-like. There is no exact knot; it's a sheet of suspended tension that I imagine only men with their names on the sides of buildings have. It's also difficult to find where the pressure needs to change along his back, so I become paranoid. He has enough money to be this picky, but I don't know that I have enough patience to please him.
I soon stop trying to please him. He begins adjusting himself on the table, and making the odd grunting noise. The adjusting becomes more like a rubbing on the table, and I soon remember my massage therapist friends telling me how to recognize a guy trying to get himself off during massage. I don't know for sure, so I just deepen my pressure—my usual tactic—until his adjusting winds down. By the time I move down to his legs, he's asleep. My pressure has settled on a firm medium and I get through the rest of the 90-minute session while trying to keep my mind occupied by watching the clock and ignoring the chirping birds, ocean waves, and generic Asian flute overhead.
He sleeps through the rest of the massage. I always wonder what a person gets out of that. Afterwards, I can't tell if he is happy, since when I return to the room, he's gone. I grab the hundred-dollar bill that he left and shove it into my bag. I appreciate the generous tip, but I don't like the way the bill, half-folded, eyes me from the countertop. (Leaving the money out on the table as one would for a prostitute bothers me a little. I also don't like it when people leave cash out because they think I'll see it and work harder—and the sad truth is, I will.)
On the day I worked out of the 61st street apartment, I discovered a few additional facts about my client. Her legs were perfectly waxed and moisturized, but for some reason, her feet were dry and cracked, as if she'd shoved any discomfort in her body down to the very bottom. There were other things, too: Her lower back felt weak and loose, terms that don't translate from my hands to other people's understanding—I can only describe it as unsettled. She jumped a bit when I pressed my thumbs into acupressure points at the base of the spine and her hips and upper thighs felt cold, which usually indicated a blockage, or possible trauma.
As I worked on her hands, I eyeballed the room again. Beneath a vase of dried and very ornate autumn flowers, I noted several self-help paperbacks on her nightstand, including one on living with the 12 Steps.
It dawns on me then that many people feel safe in my hands—they might seek safety even more than healing or therapy. I'm there to witness their hidden collection of secrets for a manageable 60 or 90 minutes at a time. I am there to see each person and feel each body for who they really are—to see past their flower arrangements, their powerful names, their cultural trappings.
I am there to see them naked, and I am there to return again and again, if I choose to. I am there to leave promptly afterwards.
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