The smell of ocean water is embossed in my memory. The sea is greedy, permeates all other scents with itself, cutting through florals and neighborhood barbecues and the smell of rubber from all the tires that carry tourists through town. My mother used to take me to the ocean and fall asleep, risking sunburn, while I played in the waves. Ocean scent, that pungent, slightly fetid smell is imprinted in my past and it seemed only natural that it crept into the floorboards and walls, the bushes and upholstery of my life in Bolinas that six months. I think the ocean
smell finally made me lose my mind a little, the salt pushing its way into the lining of my brain, swelling the precious membranes. It made me, an atheist, act like someone who yearned for an understanding of life that bordered
on the holy.
I was working as a massage therapist at a small hotel four days a week. Regularly I rubbed the knots out of executives who didn't know how to properly delegate; I made short shrift of that nasty precursor to carpal
tunnel at the tender inside wings between secretaries' scapulas. I massaged nubile young honeymooners, sore surfers, and old women with estates and chauffeurs. The rich ones tipped lousy and I remained in a holding pattern -- my fiancé living in another state, my mother on the edge of deathfrom cancer.
I remember the sharp pull of the sea-stink in my nostrils and a pervasive aura that ocean fog creates at the periphery of one's eyeballs. That Saturday, Fat Larry was behind the desk trying to hide Hustler between the
pages of the old Operations Manual. I laughed out loud.
"What's your problem?" he asked, petulant as always.
"You're better off just reading the magazine in plain view. That manual hasn't been updated since 1972," I said.
Fat Larry scowled, and I think he wanted to tell me off. I peered over his shoulder, weathering the smell of garlic fries on his breath and looked at my penciled-in schedule. It helped that Fat Larry had a crush on me. I
always got priority.
There were six massages booked today back-to-back, a crusher for me. I hadn't been sleeping well, not when Sam was so many miles away, and Mom so many miles inside herself. There was one name I recognized on the list, three nondescript Johns or Bills or Franks, I forget now, and the last two names that stood out
as if Fat Larry had highlighted them in yellow.
Why did they stand out? I like to think now it was just fate's ruddy paw slapping me on the back.
The first four Bills or Franks felt like eight clients; they had thick muscles that my fingers and elbows slipped and tripped over. All three men grunted and snorted, making sounds like tired packhorses. It was all I could do not to cry when Fat Larry came to announce that Jess Dawdy and William McCloskey were waiting in the lounge.
I washed my hands, changed the sheets and trudged like the tired servant I was to retrieve Miss Dawdy. I couldn't help but think that Dawdy rhymed with bawdy.
I look back now in embarrassment, but the truth is, I barely noticed Jess Dawdy as I came into the lounge, because I couldn't withdraw my gaze from the face of the man at her side. He had a high thick forehead, deep-seteyes, an impossibly tiny chin and soft large lips. All the proportions of his face appeared inaccurate and I wanted to erase parts and redraw them to their right size. But as I studied him (which I later realized constituted staring) I couldn't decide what the right sizes were.
Miss Dawdy, who by conventional standards was quite beautiful, smiled, lifted her long graceful fingers to me and stood up. She was wearing the seafoam green terry robe we provided our clients. She had blonde hair and
eyes that changed color with the angle of the light, just like ocean water does.
"I'm Molly, I'll be your massage therapist," I said by rote.
"Great! Molly. I'm Jess. Let me just tell you about William -- my brother."
I looked at Jess's fine, symmetrical features and then at the rough, unusual face of her brother.
"He's autistic," she said. "But he really enjoys massage. There are just a couple of things you ought to know about him."
Oh boy, I thought. I'm sure I paused visibly.
"He has to have this in the room." She beckoned to William who produced from behind his back a most crude and curious object. I winced at it. It looked, most bluntly, like a medieval sex toy, with an obvious phallic tip and a base that resembled a scrotum. I'd had clients bring crystals, rabbit's feet, essential oils and even photographs
of dead relatives to the room before, but this was a first.
"It's a flask from our father, who used to travel a lot. I think it's Mongolian in origin. Anyway, it means a lot to Will -- sentimental creature that he is."
"Sure, no problem," I said, relieved that I wasn't being requested to use the item.
"And he likes it if you read him this page from the Tao-Te-Ching."
William produced a wrinkled piece of paper from his pocket on cue.
I took both objects like I was passing on Frankincense and Myrrh to the baby Jesus.
"I was going to have the first massage, but William insisted," she said.
I tried to imagine the complacent little man insisting on anything.
"I'll just go and have a hot tub."
"Doesn't William need a robe?" I asked, suddenly crushed under the weight of being alone with the man.
"No. He won't take his clothes off for strangers. Just do your best through them."
I smiled half-heartedly and looked William in his eyes for the first time.
"Okay William, are you ready?"
William's soft mouth widened out in a rubbery smile, revealing bad teeth and a dimple on his right cheek.
"He'll let you touch him, but he won't touch you," Jess said, then to William: "Have fun."
William smiled again and I directed him down the long hall, past the row of little fountains that on any given day could either gurgle softly or spit loudly. William had a shuffling walk, as if his ankles were tied together,
and I wondered if this was somehow representative of his mind, bound up inside, shuffling down a dark corridor towards consciousness. I knew almost nothing about autism.
We arrived at my room and he stayed motionless in the doorway.
"You can go in William. Just climb up on my table there. I don't think you'll need the sheets since you're staying clothed." William stood where he was, looked not quite at me but past me, like there was a jewel hanging just above and behind my head. Then he looked at the ground and rocked back and forth from one Birkenstock-clad foot to the
other. I was puzzled, and scared. I couldn't very well shove him through the door.
"It's okay, William. You can go in. Jess said it was okay." I grappled for the right words.
William made a soft sound, like a frustrated pre-verbal child, swinging his eyes to my hands. I realized that he was looking at the flask.
"Oh! Do you want me to put this in the room first?"
William smiled again, and nodded in a swinging, repetitive kind of way.
I entered first and set the flask on the table next to my massage cream. William clapped his hands and promptly stepped into my room. He kicked his shoes off in an awkward duck-footed manner, climbed up onto my table with
his rear end high in the air, and flopped down on his stomach with his head to one side. I didn't bother to make him lay properly. I shut the door behind us.
He was wearing a thin white T-shirt, sweat pants and two unmatched socks. To my surprise, as I came closer to him, he smelled of cologne, something familiar and strangely comforting. Sam didn't wear cologne, but somehow the
scent conjured him out of that moment, and I imagined his hands on women's breasts and between their legs. My fiancé was finishing his residency in Vermont as a gynecologist. I had returned to California to nurse my
sick mother, before she played the martyr, telling me she wanted to die alone. My life felt like some realm of Dante's hell.
I was about to begin the massage, when I realized William was still clutching the piece of wrinkled paper in his left hand.
"William, do you want me to read this before we start?" I asked. He answered me by releasing his grip on the paper and letting it drift to the floor.
As I picked it up, and parted its oft-folded corners, I had a sense of reverence, as if this was a prayer for William. I read in a wavering voice:
The ordinary person is luminously clear,
I alone seem confused.
The ordinary person is searchingly exact,
I alone am vague and uncertain.
< >as the ocean;
< >as though without boundary.
The masses all have a purpose,
I alone am stubborn and uncouth.
I desire to be uniquely different from others by honoring the mother who nourishes.
William began to rock on my table, like a joyous child, like a person fulfilled, and in that moment I became jealous of his easy joy.
"You do seem luminously clear, William," I admitted. William blinked his eyes at me and smiled. And to myself I thought, Yes: I alone am confused. I too want to honor the mother who nourishes. Even if she didn't nourish
properly most of my life. Even if she will never hear me forgive her neglect before she dies.
And then I put my hands on William's leg. I used my best Shiatsu techniques with thumb pressure, gentle rocking and the heels of my hands reaching for the 'belly' of William's soft muscles. William occasionally made a cooing
sound, reminding me of the way happy newborn babies coo. I wondered if William got stuck in his development in that first year of his life. I wondered about his and Jess's parents. The brown flask sat next to my unused
massage cream, and I heard his sister's words "sentimental creature that he is" in my mind. Was it sentimental to miss someone who had died?
I moved up William's legs to his back, using more gentle pressure than I had exerted on the other men today. I felt tender toward him, like he was my brother or my child even, though he was quite possibly ten or more years older than my 29 years.
I moved through the whole massage thinking of the lines I read to William. Was he the ordinary person? I tried to recall what I knew of Taoism from college. Luminously clear because he was without desires and attachments? Then I looked at his father's flask and knew that couldn't be true. Surely William had desires and suffering. I found myself stroking his hair, as if I knew him. I pulled my hand away quickly.
"Turn over for me, William," I said.
William repeated his odd body mechanics, and when he turned over, there was his face again, so compelling in its oddness. I pulled gently at the long muscles of his neck and he looked up at me the whole time, with a curiosity
in his eyes. And the more I felt him looking at me, the more a surprising sadness surged up inside me. Had it hidden in my toes? It moved to the dangerous top of the well at the back of my eyes. And then William spoke to
"How nebulous! as the ocean; How blurred! as though without boundary. The masses all have a purpose, I alone am stubborn and uncouth."
And that was all it took for the well to spill over, for the tears to start coming. I didn't stop his massage, but I couldn't stop the tears either. They came dripping and running out of my eyes, off my face, dotting William's pant legs and T-shirt with their salt. And William kept his gaze on me the whole time.
When the massage was over I folded his paper up, handed him his father's flask and touched the top of his head.
"Sorry for the tears," I said.
I brought William back to the lounge, where Jess was no longer in her robe, but fully clothed.
"I got so tired from the hot tub that I think I'm just going to have a nap," she said to me. "How was it William?"
To my great surprise, William stuck out his thumb, grinned and said "A-Okay."
"A-Okay," he said again and then walked purposely across the room and put his down-facing palms on either of my shoulders.
Jess gasped. "He hasn't touched anyone like that since our father died."
I held my breath.
"When was that?" I whispered as William stood there with his hands on me like a priest.
"Four years ago. Heart Failure. William was devastated by it."
William let go of me then and stood next to his sister.
"I'm sorry," I said. I could feel the tears trying to rise again, and I fought them back.
"He thinks Dad's spirit lives in that flask. That's why it goes everywhere with us."
"Your brother is special," I said. "Nice to meet both of you." Then I turned rudely away and ran down the hall. The waves of sadness overwhelmed and choked me.
When my eyes were dry and my room cleaned up, I went to gather my tips. Fat Larry was gone and Angry Stan had replaced him. I ignored him, as I usually did, so I didn't have to listen to a tirade about "the feminists" or
"the pro-choicers." In my tip envelope I found $140, $100 of it left to me by Jess herself, and William's folded paper of the Tao-Te-Ching. I felt like I'd been blessed by every powerful spiritual and religious person who'd ever walked the planet.
It was 3:30 by this time. I tucked William's paper in my bag like it was a piece of crystal, folded up the cash into my wallet and calculated that it would take me probably five hours to make it to Monterey. My mother was
in hospice now, since the doctors couldn't stop the insidious tumors from spreading. At the edge of her death, it would be unnecessary to tell her much. Just: I forgive you. I love you.
I got into my car, rolled down the window, letting the sea-smell rush in through my olfactory gateways. I alone am vague and uncertain, I thought. The ordinary person is luminously clear. Luminously clear.
About the author:
Jordan E. Rosenfeld writes from the underbelly. She has dabbled in journalism, flirted with memoir and finds she is inextricably married to fiction. She is in the process of shopping her novel "Stranger in the Door" to agents,finishing her second novel "Shaky Grounds" and will continue to write quirky, bizarre stories so long as she has opposable thumbs. You can find out more about her at www.thewritelife.com.