“All comfortable? Let your arms hang down, Harris, that’s it.” She pulled a stool around and sat
in front of his head. She was perhaps thirty-three years old, with blond, shoulder-length hair and
a chunky build, dressed in slacks, a pullover and a vest. She’d introduced herself as Doreen, and
then had left him, telling him to undress, to take off or keep on his underpants, however he felt
most comfortable (he kept them on), and then to lie down on his stomach on the massage table, with
the sheet pulled up. When he was ready, she’d knocked and come back in. “Now tell me a little about
you. You’ve never had a massage before?”
“No, never. The people I work with gave me this for Christmas. I’ve only known massage as a
decadent, self-indulgent, privilege-class thing, like Elizabeth Taylor in the movies, mud-masked and
naked on her back, with some lifeguard type rubbing oil in.”
“That’s what most people think,” she said. “That or the massage parlor thing.” Her tone seemed to
dissociate the professional massage from either.
“I’m a runner. I train for marathons. I’ve always eyed the massage tables at races. This morning,
with the thaw, is the first I’ve gotten out for a real run in weeks and I’m a little sore. You
know, with all this snow, I’ve been stuck on a stationery bike in my basement.”
“Are you married?”
“Yes,” Harris answered, “but we haven’t been romantic recently.”
“I know. There’s a lot of that.”
“We’re friends. We’re compassionate. We have two children, a daughter sixteen, son eight. I’m
“Okay, let’s get started.” She stood and lifted off his glasses. “Let me take those. Just stay
relaxed, arms down, just totally limp. That’s good. Don’t fight it.” Then she moved around and stood
alongside his hips, pressing her body close, establishing contact.
“I need to be touched,” he went on, in the vein of telling about himself. “I’m not touched a lot in
my life, I feel. I am a tense, interior person. I think if we all touched and were touched more, we
would be kinder, healthier people . . . Normally I take my tension out in running . . . and in
writing . . . I am a writer.”
“Well, it’s catching on more,” she said. “A lot of people are looking to massage for better health;
it has health benefits, not just for aches and pains, or muscular or chiropractorish conditions, but
for the whole person.”
The Indian raga music wove sinuously in the background, atonal and repetitive.
“You have a nice body,” she said, working on his back, shoulders and neck. “You take care of
“Well, like I said, I am a runner.”
“I am going to go deep, now, so tell me if it hurts, okay?”
“I have a friend,” he said. “A poet, Frank Bidart. He wrote this long poem called ‘The War of
Vladimir Nijinsky,’ about this ballet star Nijinsky who, when he danced, danced World War I, moved
to emotions of the war, expressed the war through his body. I feel that way about running. That I
am driven to run the 1980s and 1990s in America as I have felt them; that I am saying and feeling
what I have lived through the rhythm and grace and endurance of my body.”
She shifted to work on his lower body then, kneading the sole of his foot and toes, bending his leg
slowly back, farther, until it hurt, stretching; then the other foot.
“I feel like you’re talking to me,” he said. “You are telling me things. We are having a
“We are,” she said. “Giving a massage for me is like running is for you, the way you described it.”
He hadn’t asked, and didn’t ask outright about her life, though he wondered. Was she married? Did
she have children? Were her parents alive? Was she lonely? Did she have a lover? Harris felt
that she was telling him as a stranger the weight and meaning of her life, her passages, her
experience, her pleasures even.
Several times during the session the sitar tape ran out, and she stopped for a moment to turn it
over or to put in a new one. But the twangy, twining strains continued and provided the rhythmic
background for her touch.
“I’m not in very good shape,” she said. “I couldn’t run across the street if you paid me. My arms
and shoulders are strong from doing this, but my belly and the rest of me is all soft.”
As she bent, working over his buttocks and lower back, he felt or thought he felt her breasts
“Time to turn over,” she said.
He worried about having an erection, as if that would be disrespectful, and managed not to, as she
discretely folded the sheet up, exposing his waist and crotch, then rolled up the rim of his red
jockey briefs so that she could oil and massage the flow of his leg muscles deep into the pelvic
Up his legs. Deep into his stomach, up his ribs, over his chest. He turned over on his stomach
again and she rubbed warm body oil, lightly scented, into his back and shoulders, then down his legs
and leg muscles, all the way to his feet. Then when she finished, she wiped the same areas clean
with the warm, damp towel.
They had become speechless, or he had, as they sank together into the rhythm and pleasure. A part
of him felt the lover’s surge to meet her touch and go forward to real sex, but he was still. He
was being done to, with a prohibition against doing. He surrendered, and the rhythm built deeper
and deeper towards some primitive center in him, so that he was thinking, and allowed himself to
think, of being mothered and swaddled like an infant, so that he was thinking of his mother, and
loving and missing her, and weeping at that deep-body memory, his grief inseparable from love,
unspeakable love, being tendered, being loved: this was what he wanted and missed most in his life.
She worked on Harris’ sacroiliac, where back bone joined pelvis, where his arthritis had been in his
earlier thirties, where all the anger and frustration of his loneliness through his single, student
years in Cambridge had found its physical outcry, and where later his frustrations as a writer had
settled, his years of joblessness once he had his PhD, his fear of marriage, and then of the added
compromise of children, and the conflict with his wife who had married him expressly to have
children. Thumbs first, pressing, circling into the pelvic joint, heels of both hands, her whole
weight leaned. Force, then tenderness; the contact deepening. He groaned.
The birth of their daughter, their infertility ordeal, and their last resort: counseling. “We don’t
share!” his wife shouted at him. “We don’t want the same things. You don’t want to adopt because
the child won’t be smart enough. I’m for life, I’m not ‘desperate,’ I’m tired of it! You won’t
talk to me! You need a third person to talk to!” Grief for his father’s, and then his mother’s
death. Grief for dreams denied, for the rejection of his best work as a writer. Grief for
betrayals, for his life’s first enemies and rivals. Political attempts at Northeastern to deny him
tenure and to exploit the English Department as he had developed it. His friend of twelve years and
co-founder of the literary magazine that Harris had convinced Northeastern to sponsor, suddenly
claiming credit for Harris’ work, then trying to sell the magazine to another university without
Harris for his personal gain. Prolonged legal struggles, as bitter as divorce. Grief for his older
sister’s grief, first for her husband’s departure after thirty years, second for the loss of her
son, a promising artist, to AIDS. Grief for the recent death of the novelist Bradford Ness, his
best friend and mentor, at the age of sixty-six. Six months later, then, death of his arch rival at
Northeastern, a popular teacher whose tenure Harris had opposed just as the man learned he had
cancer; the teacher then had rallied sympathy on campus, had gotten tenure, and proceeded to
undermine Harris’ authority as chair. The turning, inspired by this man before his death, of
factions in Harris’ faculty against him. His vertiginous mid-life identity, as again, others
disdained his meaning and his life’s giving. His bid again to publish a book, his masterpiece,
without success. And meanwhile, at home, lack of support. His wife’s investing her time and heart
in her work and friends at the private K-through-six school, where for the past ten years she had
established a career as a gifted teacher. His daughter’s pulling away into an independent social
life. His son’s absence as he increasingly played with the children of his wife’s friends. His
first experiences of impotence — a new, depressing event for him. Memories of his daughter’s
birth, his son’s arrival as an infant. Grief for his sterility and aging as he watched a Nova
special on The Miracle of Birth. Wonder at the mystery of all that viscera-turned-spirit. Wanting
to give life, make life. Wanting to send seeds of personality and value, salmon-like, into the
fallopian tubes of a resistant world — to send them alive and capable of igniting life in some
karmic egg, random and appropriate and waiting.
She found things in him, in his muscles and body, that he hadn’t said and maybe couldn’t say
He was being hot oiled. He was being caressed.
He was weeping. Then at deep, deep peace.
She had worked her way now back to his shoulders and arms, and up the nape of his neck, and let her
fingers trail fondly through his hair. The tape had finished. Silence. Harris’ eyes were closed.
“It was a pleasure meeting you,” she said. “I’m going now. You can stay here as long as you like.
Don’t get up all at once, just hold onto it as long as you can.”
“Thank you. You’re quite, quite wonderful.”
Then she had slipped out.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, he did get up and dress, holding the quiet inside himself, the
gladness, and after the final business of tying his sneakers and pulling on his coat, he left a five
dollar tip in the dish marked for that purpose (feeling that he could afford to be generous) and
left the room. As he stepped through the waiting room, he looked for her (what had her name been?
Doreen?). Where had she gone? There were several young women talking, and the girl at the desk,
but no sign of her. Maybe she had had another client, pronto; maybe after a one-hour session, she
was free to go home or to take a break. After that much shared emotional experience, she must be
shaken too. Harris didn’t ask. He just let himself out into the overcast, darkling late afternoon,
and started back to his car. Part of the masseuse’s professional technique, he assumed, was in fact
to disappear, so that there would not be out-of-session contact.
He had forgotten exactly what she looked like, and was doubtful he could recognize her, especially
in street clothes, but he had some notion they might pass if she were heading home too, and maybe
they could have coffee. He felt attractive and aglow with beneficent well-being. Then as he turned
the corner, a woman who was bundled up and stepping out a back door, and who might have been her or
might simply have been a stranger, smiled and looked him in the face. “It’s starting again
already!” she said. And only a few uncertain steps past her, feeling at first that she meant the
world itself, real time itself, Harris realized that instead she must have meant the snow, scattered
flakes falling, followed by the heavier, driving onset. He realized that she had only been a
stranger passing, responding to his open glow and commenting on the weather, which was their natural