For the Living
You know it from the doctor’s face before she says a single word. The word for her expression is “exhilaration.” Your sudden resilience has startled her from exhaustion, and this, you know, should make you happy. In the time it takes you to arrange your face, the doctor leaves the room to let you dress. She closes the door and you hear her whoop of triumph echo through the oncology wing.
Instead of calling your employer and rescinding your resignation, or the real estate agent, or your mother, you rummage in a desk drawer and realize the extent to which you were prepared to leave things unfinished. You’d handled your life — home, work, community — sent them off to go on without you. Some breaks were cleaner than others. The small details, this drawer, for instance, betray your unwillingness to move on.
You find a pink plastic gift certificate, still good, call the number listed there, and schedule an afternoon massage. You listen for signs of distress in your voice and notice nothing remarkable beyond the tendency to uptick your words so that everything sounds like a question, a quality that makes your actual questions sound optional to those in a position to answer them with conclusive medical authority.
When you enter the spa, your scalp is a secret you hide in a scarf. You see the girl at the desk do a double take, then smile. She doesn’t mention it, but you know she thinks she knows. What they don’t know won’t kill you. This is a joke you make with yourself. Remission has revoked your license for gallows humor.
You wait, reminded of the other rooms in which you’ve waited. To distract yourself, you fixate on the thinness of the robe, the way it presses against your skin and will leave a crisscrossed pattern against what used to be your ass. The room smells like eucalyptus and you wait for the nausea to rise like an old friend waving hello. Your stomach is calm, sits down, plays dead. Or stops playing dead. Your stomach is flat as the clipboard in your hands. Do you have chronic pain? Do you take any medications? Do you have any persistent ailments that have been diagnosed by a medical professional? You check “NO” on all of the boxes.
You do as you are told and press your body to the warm table beneath you. You remember the only other time you received a massage, ten years ago when a girl in your apartment building was in school and needed volunteers. Your hair was long then and she’d arranged it for you in a knot that pulled toward the floor, stretching the skin at the nape of your neck with a good, biting hurt that made you think of pulling taffy.
You close your eyes and breathe. You try to feel quiet and long between the soft sheets. The breath sticks in your chest and you feel like you are being judged for how well you can handle the task of being alive.
The therapist’s hands descend and slide. You gasp and she presses again, whispers once: “Good.” Her small hands articulate the places where the flesh disappeared from your ribcage so quickly you made jokes about your new beauty secret. Your friends didn’t know whether to laugh. You’d laughed enough for everyone, laughed until you coughed. That was when you started ignoring messages or calling too late at night, rambling the things you’d never said out loud until your friends hung up the phone, their sympathies exhausted. You made yourself easy to mourn.
You breathe into the masseuse’s touch, into the strength of her fingers and palms and the weight of her forearms. Your lungs fill and her hands make arcs against your freckles and moles, against the stubborn seal of your skin. Her fingers grasp your shoulders, graze the bandaged, stitched hole where the port was removed. You wait for the question and instead receive another: “Is that pressure okay?”
You arch into the touch and let your body do what it does best. Respond. Surprise you. Submit.
You move beneath her like the live animal you are. She presses both elbows to the slack cords of muscle along your spine and the room closes down around you. You see flashes of color float behind your closed eyes and wonder if this is what it feels like to die.
You realize you don’t know her name, this woman pressing her flesh against your own. It seems right this way. You passed from the living towards the dead with strangers. With a stranger, you’ll come back the way you went.
A cellphone rings. You say “sorry” when she curses, as if it is your fault. The ring pinballs off the walls and your still body. You admire the noise, the way it persists and reminds you of the smallness of this room. Echolocation, you think. What dolphins do. Last summer on the day the doctor told you, you drove home and listened to a news story about the hundreds of dolphins found dead on the coast. You’d cried in the car, picturing the dividing cells in your body spreading like black oil.
The masseuse stumbles in the dark, curses again, and then it is silent. You think about clearing your throat. What you do instead is hunch your elbows beneath your body and curl your chin into your chest. You wait balled beneath the sheet and think how strange to be suddenly struck like this: your eyes brined; your flesh oil slick from a stranger’s hands. Your heart is a sinewy muscle in an ocean of blood; your heart is a chamber of empty rooms. You lay stuck, stilled. Flooded by a surge of feeling for those dolphins who didn’t wash up on shore, for the living creatures left to carry on.about the author