Taking It Off
– A short story by Jean Harper
Today isn’t following the plan. Nor do I think it ever will. The weather hasn’t helped either. Typical British weather. I’m sure the weather girl said just a chance of showers. This is more like broken celestial plumbing! So no, I’m not happy.
I guess it’s because I’ve also spent the entire morning looking for something ridiculously simple. All I wanted was a nice party top and non press skirt and a pair of tights that will last longer than 20 minutes. You’d think I had asked the assistant for the crown jewels! Shopping in hand I rush back to the treatment room for my evening appointment arriving early. Maybe my luck had changed.
I’d just changed into a track suit bottom and a loose, white cotton T shirt and was enjoying a cup of camomile tea when my client arrived. From my office window I could see the main gates clearly but it was the noise that hit me first. Incredibly loud and deep bass notes preceded the appearance of a jet black 7 series BMW. Enormous thing. Bling wheels and demon black tint. He pulled up close to the building and a moment or two later the car door opened allowing Snoops lyrics to spill unto the pavement. ‘representing for the gangsters all across the world.’ He stood by the car looking through the window in my direction. Brash platinum chains, Mad Max Jeans and Armani shades. Something missing…oh yeah, hot booty and a squeaky voiced director saying ‘cut!’
I opened the door, introduced myself as Jean and ushered him into the lounge area. It was empty and quiet now as he was the only client booked in that afternoon. The name in my appointment book said Vince and its owner had settled himself against the reception desk, his body set at an odd angle. I’d seen this posture often here but not packaged like this. Only now did I notice the six rings (yes 6!) winking at me as he folded his arms bouncer style. Yeah, Mr Bling himself.
Apparently Vince was into serious weight lifting and a week earlier had upped the weight for doing squats (a weightlifting exercise) when challenged by his crew to ‘step up’. Something had gone wrong with the lift. (Didn’t seem such a good idea the next morning I’ll bet) His crew wanted to know how long before he’d be back in the gym. Apparently the ladies missed him too. The silence was abrupt and I realised he was waiting for an answer.
While I prepared the massage table he prowled around the room pausing to view my charts and ‘bio-stuff’ as I call it. He questioned everything… barely pausing to hear me out before throwing another one. Lucky me… I had a man with the body of a stripogram and the mind of a dick in my office. No, not that dick, our dick. Private dick. Hmm…
The conversation felt like a meeting of two foreign diplomats who’ve lost their respective interpreters and decide to brazen it out on their own. My eyes kept following the enormous chain adorning his neck…and I did wonder if the weight of it might be causing his back strain all on its own!
Kept that thought to myself.
Which brings us to the taking off I mentioned. Now I have a simple routine. I explain the whole process (take off clothes, climb under the sheet, yadda yadda) then leave the room for a moment or two. By the time I’d returned he was face down revealing a dragon tattoo with flared nostrils, its tail snaking down to his waist. The clothes were hung neatly on hangers and the trainers left outside the door. Really? Now I’m confused.
Now here’s the thing: As soon as my hands touched him he fell silent. Not a word for 15 minutes. Just at the point where a little feedback would have helped he’d decided he had no use for words. I probed and kneaded, maybe a tad harder than I would normally just to force him to respond but oh no, Mr Bling man wasn’t having it. His fists remained clenched and he hardly breathed. 30 minutes into the session and I’m wondering if there is any point continuing. Nothing is working and I’m feeling stupid. By now I should have seen the usual signs of a break through. You know…the shoulders slump, the arms roll outwards or hang ape like over the edge of the table and the body slackens as if to say ok, have it your way.
I glanced up at the clock feeling time racing away from me. The old one had served me well but the tick-tock was out of place in a room where time is supposed to stand still. This new one worked a charm. Unforgivable.
Not wanting to admit failure I decided to gamble with fate. Remember, I’m alone in my office with a man who looks like a large serving of Schwarzenegger with a heavy side order of menace. Without warning I lift my hands from his body and step back. And wait. It takes around 20 seconds for him to react. He sits up making the sheet fall away and I will myself not to look down. I’m sure I’d seen his boxer shorts on the chair…
We don’t speak for quite a while. I fix him my best ‘you don’t scare me’ look and go for broke. “This room isn’t the street or the gym and I’m not one of your crew. You’ve got nothing to prove, especially to me. All I care about right now is sorting out your back. You came to me to fix it so let me do my job. Please” He made no effort to answer and after a few more seconds rolled over (thank god!) and waited.
As my hands returned to the task I knew something had changed. I ventured to ask for feedback and this time, grudgingly, he obliged. His body gave only a little at a time as if still unsure if it was safe to do so in present company. His muscles, sore and frayed, finally gave up and my fingers could find the places where the pain lurked. Incredibly he started to speak of his own volition, his tone softer and to my surprise his speech clearer. Street was being replaced with a vocabulary richer than my own. Turns out his real name was Oliver.*
He was a video game programmer and lived with his mother in a rough part of town. Of the three in his year to make it to university, only he graduated. With honours too. As an act of
self preservation he’d stuck with the guys from the neighbourhood and tried his best to avoid hard drugs or serious crime. The gym was a safe place to burn time. My mind swirled. A gangster programmer with a degree? Best not spread that around. Time was up so I suggested he remain as he was for another five minutes while I did a few things in the office.
Stepping back into the room I was a little surprised to find him fully dressed, payment in hand. A huge tip too. Oliver swivelled his body left and right, a look of astonishment spreading across his face. We held each others’ gaze for slightly longer than I’d expected then he slowly nodded. I smiled for the first time but we didn’t speak. Finally he returned the heavy chain to its place of prominence around his muscled neck then headed towards the exit.
As we walked towards the front door I witnessed something like a scene from Terminator 2. Oliver began disappearing… morphing into this strange, hardened creature that had prowled my office, an air of violence his shadow. The hands were once again fists. The shoulders lifted and squared. Jaw set. By the time the engine was gunning, bass rippling the air, nothing of the soft spoken, educated man I had glimpsed on my massage table remained.
And then he was gone.
We are all like Oliver in some way. We count ourselves lucky that no one figures out the truth behind the life we lead while we mock the obvious fakers on TV. Sadly, it’s not a victimless endeavour. Our bodies creak under the burden of the image we’ve created. We’re bad actors on a broken stage. I should know; I’m there to you carry on with your part.
Oliver knows what i mean.
© Jean Harper
Sports massage therapist, London Reproduced with permission