The Standard Male Equipment

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I‘d screwed my back; that was how the whole thing started. In the past this kind of thing happened when I played hoops or soccer. This time it was just a long stretch of driving.
      Some people don’t buy back injuries. They try to make you feel somehow inadequate for complaining about them, as if the back were some kind of given in the bodily scheme. The woman I lived with in Fort Lauderdale, whose place I’d just moved out of, she felt this way. She would have been amused to learn that I arrived in D.C. hunched over like a crab. Not that I cared what she thought.
      I was on my way to Boston to see my folks. There was something of a family crisis. My older brother Pete came out of the closet a couple of years ago, and this was not something my parents were dealing with too well. But now Pete was coming to visit “with his partner” and the ‘rents were completely freaked. I was supposed to be there to help smooth things over. My ex giving me the boot wasn’t a part of the whole plan.
      I stopped in D.C. to visit my friend Paul, though for three days all I could do was pop Advil and lie on his bed with pillows under my knees. He was the one who suggested the massage. “Who knows,” he said. “It might help you work things out.”
      “Sure,” I said. “I’ve got nothing against a massage.”
      I went over there the next day while Paul was at work. The place was across town, in one of those old, three-story brownstones they have in D.C. The little plaque for the apartment read Massages Etc. I buzzed and after about a minute this very swishy voice said: “Yes-s-s-s?”
      “I’m here for a massage,” I said.
      “You have an appointment?”
      “Sure,” I said. “Three-thirty. I’m the guy with the appointment at 3:30.”


There was a pause. “Come back at 3:30,” he said.
      The walk from the bus had helped loosen my back up, and it was a nice enough day to consider bagging the whole thing. But I’d come this far, so I walked over to a little park nearby and sat there eating some kind of ice cream sandwich thingie and wondering what Pete looked like these days. The last time I’d seen him was at our cousin Mitzy’s wedding. He had a buzz cut and all these brand-new muscles, which was funny because he used to be sort of a chubby kid. But now he was very put together, almost too put together. I kept looking at his calves and thinking: What the hell are those things made of, some kind of titanium alloy?
      When I buzzed a second time a deeper voice answered, with something like a Russian accent: “Hallo?”
      “I’m here for a massage,” I said. “I’m the 3:30 guy.”
      “You are Pull?”
      “No, I’m Paul’s friend, Tim.”
      “Pull’s friend?”
      “Where is Pull?”
      “He’s not the one who wants the massage.”
      “You want the massage?”
      My back really felt pretty good at this point.
      “Okay. You are coming now. Third floor.”
      The Russian met me at the door. He was a little weightlifter-looking guy who pumped my hand like he was milking it. “I am George.” George led me to a dim room at the back of the apartment, no bigger than a walk-in closet, really. A little stick of incense was stinking up the place, and some kind of chimy music was wafting around. George handed me a towel. “Take your clothes off and lie on the table. Call me when you finish.”
      “Sure,” I said. “No problem.”
      But it wasn’t exactly no problem, because I wasn’t sure what he meant. Did he mean strip down to my boxers, or all the way naked? This was kind of troubling, because I hadn’t been to a masseuse before and, frankly, I had expected it might be a woman. I’d had plenty of massages from girlfriends, of course, and even a few from my brother when we were little kids. But I didn’t really know what rules applied in a professional setting. Would it be considered prudish to keep my boxers on? Would it cause George to form a certain impression of me, one that might lead him to hold back on my particular massage? Or was he assuming I would keep my boxers on, in which case stripping would send a whole other set of messages? “I’m gonna keep my underwear on,” I called out. “All right?”
      George stepped into the room. When he saw I still had my pants on, he made a displeased little smacking noise. “I come back. Two minutes.”
      “That’s okay.” I stepped out of my trousers. “See — ready.”
      George frowned and tilted his head. I thought for a second he was going to march right over and shuck my boxers off. “All right,” he said slowly. “Go on the table. No, the other way. On the tummy.” He pedaled his forearms. Out of the table came a little donut-shaped headrest. “Head here. Ten deep breaths.” He started running his fingertips up and down my back, mapping out his plan of attack. “Hurts where?”
      “The lower back, mostly.” I raised my head, so as to be understood, but George pressed it down.
      “And here?” George plucked at one my butt cheeks.
      “Yeah.” I swallowed. “There.”
      “Relix,” George said. He began chopping at my back in a highly rhythmic and practiced manner.
      I felt the sudden need to make a little conversation, to know a bit more about this guy who was touching me more than I’d been touched in a while, so I lifted my head just a fraction and said, “Are you from Russia?”
      “Russia, no! Poland. From Poland.”
      “Wow,” I said.
      George stopped slapping. “Please. No talk, okay?”
      “Putting some oil now,” George said. “Non-allergenic. For massage.” I heard him squeeze the bottle, a hiss of air, a farty sputter. There was a little lull while George greased up. Then he set his hands down very gently and pressed until it seemed his palms had slipped inside my muscles. As he worked his way under my scapula, I let out a little groan. Then it was on to my shoulders and out along each arm. On the way back up, he went after the soft flesh of my inner arms, rubbing all the way to my armpits.
      Now, generally speaking, I can lie still for hours while a girlfriend tickles me, and I won’t crack a smile. But there was something about the way George was touching me — this little fluttering motion as he drew his hand back — that just killed me. It was like I was a kid again with Pete, who knew all the right spots.
      “Problem?” George said.
      “No,” I said. But the moment George touched me, I started flopping.
      He lifted his hands. “I have made a teee-kle?” George sounded peeved.
      “I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’m a little sensitive in some spots.”
      “Yes. Spots. But please: relix.” George stepped onto a little footstool right below my head. I could see him step up, and I felt him press into the two muscles that run like ridges along the spine. These are the muscles that swell up when my back goes into spasm, the ones I was there to loosen up. George seemed to recognize this. He let out a thoughtful little sigh — a sigh that I think acknowledged the extent of my injury — and began pulverizing my back with the heels of his palms. His breathing became heavier and, despite the incense, I started to smell George’s body odor. The room got warm.
      It was a little awkward, actually, because the way George was positioned, his crotch was right in my line of sight, or a bit below. Not that I had my eyes open. I didn’t. They were closed most of the time, to try and help me relax. But when I opened them, there was George, his sweatpants tight enough that I could see the outline of his crotch, the standard male equipment bundled there in front of me.
      George worked himself down to my butt and yanked my boxers down, just like that. I tensed.
      “Relix, please,” George snapped. He gave my left cheek a tap, a brisk, two-finger teacher kind of tap, and I realized that this was just part of the protocol, that there was nothing funny about what he was doing; this man was a professional and was only doing what he would have done to any other client. There are a lot of muscles in the butt, right?
      Still, I did start to question a couple of things. For one, I’d never seen any sort of professional license when I walked in. Not that I was questioning George’s credentials. He certainly knew what he was doing. But I wondered, for instance, if the location of his office, which was right around Dupont Circle, this gay neighborhood, might say anything about his clientele. There was also this touchy-feely vibe to the office, with the incense and Zamfir working over the panflute and all, which raised the question of what, exactly, the “Etc.” portion of Massages Etc. meant. And then there was the guy who had answered my first buzz. Did he and George live together?, I wondered. Were they, possibly, partners in more than a business sense?
      Not that George seemed faggy. He had this kind of macho, Slavic energy. But then again, I’d never met a Polish homosexual, never really put the two concepts together (Polish and homo), never considered that in Poland a gay guy might behave exactly like George. That he might be, in fact, a kind of textbook Polish homosexual. There was certainly something prickly in his manner, the way he kept telling me to relax all the time; ordering me, practically. So I started to think that there might be a pretty good chance George was gay and that if so, he was not just rubbing my butt but maybe making certain kinds of judgments about it as well.
      It didn’t matter, obviously, because I’m not gay. Not that I believe there’s anything wrong with being gay. My own brother is gay. All I’m saying is that if George was gay, it was kind of a weird situation. Because he was rubbing my butt — my bare butt — and I know if I was rubbing a woman’s bare butt, even a strange woman’s butt that I didn’t know (and maybe especially a strange woman’s butt that I didn’t know) in a dark little room with no one else around, I would get kind of, I mean, you’d have to be superhuman if you didn’t get even a little turned on. And then I thought about the gay men I’d met and how almost all of them seemed very body conscious. I know this not only because of Pete, but because my ex used to go to gay bars all the time to dance — they were the only places that played decent music, she said — and a couple of times she dragged me along. Which was fine, though I wasn’t really crazy about having all those half-naked lunks from the Planet of the Buffed giving me blunt, appraising looks. George was still kneading away on my butt, really giving it the business, and at the same time I was thinking about all this crap — my ex and these gay clubs and so forth — sort of turning those memories over in my mind, which is a habit of mine, a chronic habit I should say, I was also, I guess, reacting to the massage in a more physical way, more immediate or whatever, because, the thing is, actually, I got a boner.
      This was unsettling.
      To make matters worse, once I realized what was going on, I couldn’t calm down. I tried to put my mind somewhere else, to envision starving children or my dead grandparents or the sixth game of the 1986 World Series — the ball dribbling through Buckner’s ruined knees, Mookie Wilson tearing down the first base line — the things I generally think about when I’m trying to pull the reins in bed. But all I could think about was this one particularly epic blowjob my ex had given me in the alley behind our place at about four in the morning, the way she pressed her sharp little chin down my body and grabbed my ass and squeezed and the smell of conditioner rising from her hair and the shape of her mouth as she went about her business.



This is all perfectly understandable from an evolutionary standpoint. At the level of biology, after all, an erection will often appear at a totally useless moment. Like a capella wood. I wonder about this. Toward the end with my ex, when it was all going to hell, I sometimes had trouble in that department. And then at other times, like right in the middle of one of my shifts at the copying place where I worked, I’d go stiff as pig iron. Just the feeling of the copier humming against my crotch would be enough.
      George lifted his hands and said: “Flip, please.”
      So now I had some things to consider.
      I wondered, first off, if George knew what was up. He was pressing down on the upper half of my butt, so there was some possibility that he felt contours, especially when he pushed down. But did this awareness bear any relation to his sudden order, command, what have you, that I turn over? Maybe this was the whole point of a gay massage parlor, for the guy to get you worked up like this, then have you flip and work the old manual release, or whatever, without ever actually saying anything, because if you say something then it becomes solicitation and the cops can bust you, but if it’s just this little understood arrangement — wink wink — then it might as well just be two friends who got a little carried away with the Jergens in the privacy of their own place.
      But then maybe George knew nothing about what was going on, in which case he would, most definitely, when I flipped. And, in either case, how would he react? Was this a relatively normal thing, given the way he was touching my body? So that any embarrassment was entirely a product of my self-consciousness? Or would George take notice of my boner and feel some secret pride by withholding acknowledgement? Or was I right the first time around? That George would fix his sights right on the old pup tent, and say, in his deep Slavic voice, something like, Well, what are we having here? A leetle visitor to the house of George who perhaps needs some rub-rub to relix? Or worse.
      So actually, there were a lot of things to consider.
      George stepped off his footstool and moved behind me. I could hear him humming along to the music, waiting. “George,” I said. “I have to use the bathroom.” This sounded sort of muffled, because my face was still buried in this little hole thing. So I lifted my chin and said, a bit too loudly, “Do you have a restroom, please?”
      George frowned. He was one for frowning.
      “Sorry,” I said.
      “In the hall,” he said. “First door.”
      I inched my boxers back up, took hold of the towel George held out and flipped over in this spastic ju-jitsu fashion, making sure to keep the towel moving. George started humming again, a sort of sour tune.
      “Sorry,” I said. “I have a very small bladder.”
      George just pointed to the hallway.
      I was relieved to find that the bathroom had a kind of office feel to it. The soap was in one of those industrial dispensers, the bright pink jism-y stuff. A can of air freshener was discreetly placed atop the toilet tank. My boner wasn’t going anywhere, though, so I figured my best bet was to divert myself. The options were pretty limited. I grabbed the air freshener and began reciting in this goofy TV announcer voice Pete and I used to do: Like nature in a can! Why walk outside, when outside now comes in the form of a toxic aerosol spray!
      No one in Lauderdale understood my sense of humor. My girlfriend would just wrinkle up her face and pretend to laugh. About the only person who really got it, other than Pete, was this Roger Pruitt, a friend of mine in college. We used to sit around and smoke a great deal of Thai Stick and make these stupid-ass tapes. Mr. Fartowski grills his wife’s toy poodle. Shit like that.
      I liked Rog quite a lot, actually. He was a lot less macho than the guys at the frat house, the guys I played soccer with. He knew how to scam a girl. But he was subtle about it, not so hell-bent on living in the world of men — a place where you can’t even touch another guy without being considered suspect and sports are this great big deal, the line my dad is always pushing. Rog was the kind of guy I wish I still knew, I guess.
      But things ended strangely between us. One night, I stayed over at his place. I’d gotten pretty wasted and didn’t feel like walking all the way back to frat row. I might have been having some problems with my girlfriend at that time; I don’t remember exactly. Rog was cool. “Just crash here,” he said. “You can move the futon onto the floor.”
      I remember Rog’s place because it was a fourth-story apartment overlooking a Dunkin’ Donuts. We used to go down, nice and toasted, order a dozen donuts and trip out on the scene, which was often sad and compelling, filled with guys we considered dangerous characters, drunken townies, mumbling outpatients, small-time herb dealers, cops with loose-hanging guns.
      So Rog and I got into our separate beds, but we were both still buzzed, and somehow — I honestly don’t remember how — we got onto the topic of homosexuality. Rog knew I dated girls, and I knew he did. I’d had a crush on his last girlfriend. But then Roger said he figured I might be bisexual, sort of asked me whether I might be. I was a little put off, offended I guess, at the implication that maybe I put out those vibes. But Rog was a good guy and we always had a good time, doing these stupid imitations and so forth, so I tried to see things from his perspective, to realize that he wasn’t making any kind of value judgment, just asking.
      I didn’t say anything for a little while. Rog had said this quietly. I remember that he leaned over the edge of his bed, that I could see the outline of his mouth in the dark, the way it was open just a bit, like he was waiting for an answer, or was maybe about to say something else. But before either of us could say anything, we heard this horrific banging, and I bolted up.
      “What the fuck is that?”
      Rog laughed. “Donuts, dude.” He got up and moved to the window. I followed and stood beside him in the dark. We were both wearing boxers and that was about it. The noise kept coming, clang after clang.
      “It sounds like they’re attacking someone.”
      “No, man. That’s just how the baker does it. He lays the dough out on these huge cookie sheets and slams this tube down over and over. That’s what makes the holes.”
      “He sounds like a pretty frustrated dude.”
      “Yeah,” Rog said.
      Then suddenly the donut man was done and there was this silence, one of those very loud silences, and I could see that Roger had turned toward me and for a second, or, like, even half a second, I could see the rationale, that we really did understand and like one another and that really, when you sliced it right, moving into the physical realm wasn’t the biggest deal in the world, it was just the body doing its own kind of goofing around. Then something snapped back into place, a sort of protective shell or something, and I turned quickly and lay down on my futon. I could tell Rog was still standing there by the window and I felt shitty, blowing him off like that, though I didn’t know what else to do. It’s not like they sell a manual for these situations.
      I heard Roger settle onto his bed. He was breathing like he might be pissed.
      After a while I said, “That was an interesting question you asked before. The thing is, I was never really attracted to men, I guess.” Roger didn’t answer. I leaned over. He was on his side, curled away from me.
      The whole dynamic reminded me of certain nights with my brother, actually. Not the weird stuff; just the way we used to talk late into the night when we were little kids. Only now Roger was asleep, or pretending to be asleep, and I remember lying there in the dark for a long time thinking to myself: Pete would never have done that to me, left me alone like that, because we had an agreement that if either one of us needed to talk more or felt a little scared — or even lonely — and needed to slip into bed with the other one, that was fine. That was no big deal. It was one of these things we never even talked about, never had to talk about.
      So I got a little sad, is what I’m trying to say, a little choked up, right there in George’s bathroom, thinking about how close my brother and I had been, and how we never even spoke anymore, and how my dad got all bent out of shape when Pete came out, which was pretty obvious because he stopped speaking to anyone for about three months. I hadn’t said a whole lot to Pete myself. I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid I’d insult him somehow. But I wondered if there wasn’t something I should say, if my silence wasn’t its own kind of insult.
      George didn’t seem to have missed me. He told me to lie on my back and did a blitzkrieg on my chest and thighs, giving the whole groin area a wide berth, which made me worry for a second that George had felt my hard-on earlier. Then all at once he said: “Okay. Lie still and breathe ten times. Come out when you are ready.” I could hear him pad off, then I heard a familiar voice in the distance, chatting with George. There was a third voice too, which I couldn’t quite make out.
      I was a little disappointed that the massage was over. I’d just gotten sort of used to the idea, really. I dressed slowly and made my way to the front of the apartment. Paul was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, speaking to George and a plump woman in sweatpants that matched his. In the background, a little boy was puttering around, curious but embarrassed.
      “Here he is,” Paul said. “How’d it go, amigo?”
      “Fine,” I said. I felt a little overwhelmed. “Good.”
      “Ready to go?”
      “Sure, let me just pay.”
      “It’s taken care of,” Paul said.
      “He is one man with worries,” George said, and he laughed, pantomiming how he’d worked me over. “But he has, at least, a good friend.” His wife smiled, showing us her lovely crooked teeth.
      As we headed downstairs, I wondered about that last comment, what George meant exactly about my having “a good friend.” Right at that moment, I wanted to tell Paul about what had happened, the strangeness of it all, but I didn’t know if I could explain it without somehow giving the wrong impression.
      “I thought we were trying to get you loosened up,” Paul said. He gave me a gentle punch in the shoulder.
      “Yeah,” I said. “I am loose. I feel better.” And for that little while there, stepping into the sudden brightness of the afternoon with Paul, I did feel better. I felt right as rain, if that makes any sense. Like a man starting back toward some important loss. Sore in the bones, a little unsteady, but on his way.



©2002 Steve Almond and