We’re inside the old police station, just the two of us, in a room that might once have been a holding area. It’s the right size and shape for a cell. They’ve had to paint the wall, but you can still see the notches; the kicked-in bits. I’m pretty sure I came in through the back door, where an officer could’ve been rough as he liked. Lying here on my belly, soft from all the comfort-snacking and lack of exercise — colds and cake all winter long — I imagine meth addicts, their hair uncombed, their eyes propped open by desperation (the new millennium’s matchstick girls, matchstick boys). We got stopped last month at a gas station, the man appearing suddenly from his van, eager for cash. “I know you don’t care, but…” My husband eyed our kids, got in quick; got us out of there. I felt bad. They had children too. But in California, there’d been the madman with tin-roof eyes, who stuck his head out the cab of his Chevy and tried to hell-bend us off the road. He was going ninety-five, all over the lanes. “Just let him have his way,” I said. I imagined a gun in there, snuggled under the seat, or in his glove compartment, which he flipped open as we watched. They used to keep gloves in there, the ladies who sat on the passenger side: kid leather; brushed cotton, soft as kitten fur.
More likely, there have been any number, here, since we’re in the South, since we’re in America, not of pit-faced junkies, but young black men from the projects picked up for some swaggering crime: girls, too, in Goodwill jackets and dollar store heels — I can almost hear their crying mothers — and the not so young, hardened for life by this Dixie, post-Dixie existence. Just outside these walls, the once buckish men who loiter in the road’s divide, daring the traffic, the black and white elite burning by in our carriages of privilege, creating the only wind there is. And the old guy in a wheelchair who rides, hand-powered, the gutter to the El Cheapo dressed all in black, as if he wants to be swiped off the blacktop, driven finally, chauffeured to hospital or morgue. I watch my speed. Once I saw him outside the store and bought him soup, but when I came out he was gone. I forced down each guilty mouthful.
I wonder, as he blesses me, this massage artist, with an expert stroke across my shoulder blades — Andrew is his name: “the strong one” — if he and his colleagues purified the place before they moved in; if they wafted over this high bed, this altar, a smudge bundle of sage like the one I brought home once from Santa Fe, where I’d gone to pray, and was answered with a son. They would have needed to burn it in every corner until the bad karma scrammed right out of there, slipped and scampered through the loose edges of the cheap window glass and into the hot Carolina night, on the lookout for some other kind of trouble: easy enough to find in this neighborhood, in this old city, torched and re-jigged in sullen, ugly stages.
Actually, it’s February, not hot at all. It’s been unusually cold, I’ve thanked the Carolina heavens, the spring dragging its thong-shod feet, as everywhere else this year in America. The gods are displeased: pissed at keeping things nicely predictable, and for what? “Let them sit and shiver, then maybe they’ll get it.” Though, of course, when it turns warm, everyone will go back to their usual habits of desecration: until there’s a hurricane, maybe two; a flood; a war, really this time, to end it all. The trees in our neighborhood are falling down, neglected; dried up on the inside. Like me, I might quip, though there’s plenty of juice left in me, clearly, as evidence this massage and my reaction to Andrew, a man well trained in revival. Oh, but he heals; he gives a girl reason enough to stay in the moment (unlike last week at the dentist, the root canal, the sticking and drilling and pushing and filing — “We had to use a string to hold back the gum”). I’m not turned on, exactly — I won’t let it be that, not in print, at least. I’ve got a husband at home, handsome, virile enough, wishing I’d reach out and grab a-hold, especially since the babies. Not turned on, then, but turned up perhaps: re-stoked.
I’ll go home afterwards, yes I will. I’ll push through the bedroom door, call out, “I’m Here!” But when I get there, the door is locked: he’s gone. I can’t get the key to turn and have to drop my bags on the concrete, the coffee I’ve brought as an offering. The dentist’s assistant, Angela, has called while I was out — something about insurance. She was nice, at least. She helped when the woman from Uzbekistan, sweet as she was — she tapped my arm, quick beats like a medicine woman, doula, while the dentist fed in the needle — couldn’t get the X-ray plate in far enough without making me gag (me wondering all the while if it’s something, this buccal revolt, to do with the forced entry of penises as a teenager; the pushing down on my head to make me take in the thick, unwashed mass; the anxiety over biting, or not biting). Did something happen I don’t remember? Next stop, hypnotist.
Back here in the ex-police station, Andrew’s the only man available on the menu of therapists. I’ve chosen him because he came on special. I’d never normally choose a man. Too many unsettling experiences — the serial killer in training, the heavy breather, the too-high-up-the-inner-legger. One learns, eventually, too late, to trust one’s instinct. It was half-price the first time, with Andrew. Groupon. After that, I liked him on Facebook and got a third off. I can’t go on exploiting him like this, however many friends I tell. He’s a savior, teacher: magician. How would I feel in his (most talented) soft-soled shoes?
Maybe he doesn’t mind. It’s him who made the offer, after all. There’s a book by the Dalai Lama on the shelf beneath the whirly-stalked bamboo plant, in any case; that plant, its heavenward spiral, indubitably holy, the same shape as the music that unfurls inside me as he strokes and presses with hands, elbows, arms. The sound of surrender, echoing in thorax and gut: Gurgle, reeeeeeeeeep; the toxins and stress hormones sent off into the bloodstream, bye-bye. These books, this plant, are Zen corroboration, surely, that this Andrew means no harm, intends only to transform me, and the way he keeps me so perfectly covered, only this part revealed, then that — a leg, an arm, a buttock — white silk sheet beneath the blanket.
The first time, when I heard him crack open what I thought was the refrigerator in the corner, but was actually a heater, then felt him lay a towel from there, without warning, hot, wet, across my back, I wanted to scream: “Talk to me! Tell me what you’re doing. Consider history!” Later, after he bid me spin over and floated the sheet over my front body, my gravity-smooshed breasts, he wrapped my face in the towel so it covered my mouth and eyes — could have done anything with me after that. Now, though, I trust him. This visit, I even took off my underpants. I didn’t mean to. Not till I was under the blanket, nuzzled, did I realize what I’d done. If I jumped up to put them on again, he might come in, right at that moment. But like this, butt naked, when he pulled down the sheet to knead the gluteus, the place on the chart I’d marked with a big black circle — PAIN HERE — he’d think I was sending him some kind of message. That kind. But he did as always. He rubbed; he pummeled. Borders were observed.
At the dentist, too, I made the request: “Talk me through what you’re going to do, will you. It will help me.” The football coach/driller man nodded, but he stayed schtum (white light in my face; means, ends; evolving hatred of the West). The first guy, the one who drilled right into the nerve, whose meddling (the tooth seemed happy enough with its ancient amalgam) led to all this bother and expense (unless, as he says, it was just my time — the nerve dead for years), he, too, said nothing when I sat down in the tippy-up chair. There was an eerie hush in the surgery, like he was under suspicion for something, or I was.
What if I just let this Andrew rub my gums?
When I emerge, hair mussed, drugged by touch, he proffers a tumbler of water: holds it out like a saint, two hands, smiling. Andrew, the apostle, the orthodox: his tilted cross there on the flag outside the State House. An X: the ideal shape for nailing down, at a crucifixion, each limb.
I can’t make this Andrew rich, so I screw up my courage: “If you could only heal the world the way you heal a body,” I say, pinkly — a pauper’s gratuity. I promise him when, if, I make some money, I’ll be back. For now, I leave the building gripping the plastic cup; I drain it.
“See you again,” I chirp, stepping out into the chill. Only if there’s another offer, of course: or the improbable happens.
Will it feel the same, full-price?
Nicola Waldron is a native of England who currently teaches creative writing at the University of South Carolina. She is a graduate of Cambridge University and the Bennington Writing Seminars, and the recipient of the United Kingdom’s Bridport Poetry and Niai Foundation Prizes. Her prose work and poetry have recently been featured in Agni, Sonora Review, Mason’s Road, Free State Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, The Common, Places Journal, Jasper Magazine, and Her Kind. Her chapbook, Girl at the Watershed (Stepping Stones Press, 2013), was chosen by Kwame Dawes for publication through the University of South Carolina’s Poetry Initiative.