WORK, NEWS & MEMORIES
June 31, 2010
Six texts received over a 60-minute period, after the initial phone call from Scott in Philadelphia, requesting a massage booking at 8 p.m. that evening.
8:15 “Hi Steve was great talking with you and I look forward to this evening. I really do enjoy lots of touching and even to have my massage therapist give lots of body to body contact!! Anything goes if it’s hard and oiled up feel free to slide inside ; -)
I am a 35 year old white male athlete , 5’11”, 165 lbs. Versatile bottom with juicy bubble butt; -)
Mild to very wild : )
8:25 I love edging, seducing and passion! Negative here as well. Love to take the pleasure of the massage and all of the sudden have your cock inside me-so bonding and connecting…
8:27 I got your address, do you penetrate bare?”
Text received about 60 minutes later;
“I will not be able to make it tonight. It’s my birthday weekend and I just got a surprise message that a few friends are taking me out to dinner. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
Steve was a participant in a five-day Buddhist retreat at the Garrison Institute in upstate New York. What a relief it was to get away from the clients with their endless calls, texts, emails and inquiries about his massage services. The past week alone he’d given out the password for his private pictures on one particular M4M massage site at least a dozen times without even one booking. Damn collector jerk offs! After more than twenty years of doing the work, a slow week or worse yet, a “no-show” still aggravated the hell out of him. “It comes with the territory” his Foot Slave would say, his voice braying with that thick, New Jersey accent; and a little slurry from the vodka and grass that made up their typical Sunday evening foot worship sessions. Yes it was even nice to be away from the Foot Slave. After some 14 years of seeing him, Steve had recently come to understand this was a fetish-based relationship only and that a fetish does not a friendship make. He needed a moratorium from the short, studly cleaning man from 12th Street between A & B, who was both erotic and stone-cold. He realized he would miss having his feet worshipped, and even more, so miss those free, heavenly, immaculate pedicures provided by the Foot Slave during their ongoing weekly Sunday night ritual.
He was relishing the peace. It was a blazing summer day. He sat on bench high on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, on a break from the retreat. A large, luscious sailboat was heading away from Manhattan. He imagined a crew of hot, muscled men in Speedos at the helm. He could almost touch an achingly fluffy cloud passing overhead. He wanted to float up to it and escape these humorless, fucking Buddhists with their constant dullness. He imagined for a second breaking down the heavily enclosed shrine of the Garrison Institute by attacking the drawbridge-like wooden doors with a flamethrower. He also knew that his participation in the retreat was a good thing, a soul-strengthening thing.
Formerly a Christian monastery, this week the main alter held a giant statue of Buddha; next week it might contain the image of another deity, maybe a totem to Thor, or a macramé effigy of Gaia. The religion of the week changed according to what higher power retreat participants were worshipping this week. It felt so good to be outside, after the long, monotonous hours indoors meditating, back stiff and straight, tail bone glued to the thick, red cushions, listening to endless lectures from Yongey Mingyur, one of the latest, young, guru stars from Tibet. Yongey was wise and funny with a nervous habit of raggedly clearing his throat between every other sentence he uttered. It was difficult for Steve to assimilate the words of enlightenment spewing forth from the slim, be-speckled Buddhist star when punctuated by so many throat clearings, coughs and endless retching. Did they indicate a certain nervousness or discomfort on Yongey's part? Maybe he was just vocally tired from so many retreats and so many talks, teachings and tours on the lecture circuit of this Buddhist sect. Promotion of any new cult must be hard work. Why even Ellen, everyone’s warmest, nicest, funniest, talk-show host had her bevy of gatekeepers, caretakers, gofers and personal assistants. Yongey’s staff was limited to two or three assistants only. Steve saw his own aversion to the Guru’s harsh coughing and a-hem staccato stuttering as a weakness in himself or at least that was the tacit message he gleaned from his fellow retreat participants, who ignored Yongey’s vocal eruptions. He felt he wasn’t as hard core as most of the Buddhists here, hence, his preference to label himself a California Buddhist.
Today’s afternoon lecture was on joy. Steve knew joy, he didn’t need to hear this little bald-headed geek with speech ticks lecture him on it. Beautiful sounds constantly inspired joy in him, the purring of a kitten, the sound of rain, waves, or the wind. Music brought joy whether it be from the sounds of a hot, pulsing, bass underneath the sensual arpeggiations of a good Progressive House dance track or a melody by Bach. Music could inspire him to laugh out loud, dance or mime any feeling. It awakened him, physically and emotionally. His body breathed it in like air, letting the rhythm take control of his feet and hips and inspired him to dance. Smells could also bring joy. Oh, that heady sensuality of mixing frankincense with ylang ylang and loosing himself as he closed his eyes and breathed in the delicious vapors wafting from a golden, candle-lit diffuser. There were visions to see in the patterns of bubbles, oil, water and flame. He could float away in the ancient, magic, world of pure scent, the miniature threads of steam massaging his nostrils and brain, the vapors washing over him so that he forgot all pain and worry and was transported far away from the mediocre drudgery of day-to-day existence within the four walls of his, dim, East Village man-cave.
There was also the joy of his actor self. Was it narcissistic to want to be seen? Yes, and all the better to be uplifted while performing on camera or on the stage. Of course the endless auditions to find work that paid were tortuous and even more painful was the fact that the pay, when you found it never matched the work.
But the greatest joy in life was the deeply, erotic and sensual world of touching and being touched by a well oiled, well muscled man. Touching muscle was like emerging from the Arctic cold, and immersing himself in the liquid, crystal, churning of a hot tub; for with the touch of a muscular man’s body, the pain of loneliness dissolved like bubbles in the air.
It was a picture perfect day and his Mother was dying. Now, he was on the phone with her. She was calling from Tucson. She’d been in pain for more than a week and had just broken the news that the MRI came back abnormal and further tests were needed. He had a bad feeling in his gut, the way one senses the coming of a hurricane.
"They have to take a CAT-scan today and I have to drink a second bottle of some crap" she said. Some crap he repeated silently. She was such a dour Scot, like always. Except now her voice was slower and a bit dopey. It was the Vicodin. Miraculously, it seemed to be massaging away her usual rigid warnings and anxiety. If only she had started some sort of meds for her bi-polar tendencies years ago, she would have been so much less volatile. But now her spaciness also worried him, for it seemed a dire portend of things to come.
"It's probably nothing Mom, just a muscle sprain" he said reassuring her. He saw another large sailboat passing by far below on the river. Maybe it was a Beneteau from the gay sailing club he used to belong to until the yearly dues got too expensive. "Are you in pain now? he said, “How’s the Vicodin working? How much are you taking?"
"The prescription's for 200 mg. a day” she was slowly reading the label on the bottle, “As needed for pain. Annette said that's what everybody here takes when they're in pain." Annette was her best friend. Everybody obviously meant the residents of Far Horizons East in Tucson, Arizona. He thought it funny that there was one main drug and one general dosage that all the residents took when they were in pain.
“Mom, I really think it’s nothing serious. But call me as soon as you know anything else, Okay? I love you.”
“I love you son.”
He sat for a while pondering the call. His thoughts morphed into feelings of sadness and anxiety, followed by the playback of memories of growing up with her. His mother-lover memories started with the “June Cleaver 50's Mom,” tall and perfect in tight, baby blue slacks making meatloaf in the kitchen. This mental picture segued into a giant, nude, prickly-haired, hugging monster. Both were the same creature that had attached itself to him one summer night in the frigid, dark Best Western motel room. In this memory he was engulfed and suffocated by her, her form now transformed into a terrifying female colossus right out of “Attack of the Giant Fifty-Foot Woman.” Here she was that sensual, towering thing, causing him to fight, kick and rage against her grip on him. Or hang on and hug her until he felt the carnival-ride-tickle-worm feeling traveling down from his head to his cock.
“Mom what are you doing? Wake up, WAKE-UP!” But this scene only existed in his revisionist memory. In his memory of the actual incident, he squelched his voice, stopped his breathing and tightened his throat so no sound could escape. Then he recalled going limp as a Raggedy Ann doll and being sucked into that awful, hot, stinking place between her legs. The black-hole, vagina place, where he was transformed from boy to invisible, powerless, ghost thing. This is where he dissolved into flitty ashes blowing in the wind like a dying vampire in a B-horror movie, caving in and crumbling with the light of dawn, albeit with a slight afterglow of dying warmth between his legs. He must have been four that first time.
Now, here he looked up at the sky. The cloud was gone and the sun massaged his skin with its rays. There was a soft wind forming dancing white caps far out and down below on the Hudson. The first time, he thought, staring down to the river.
It must have been all the meditation he’d been doing, the mother lover memories were achingly clear and they were hard-wired to more feelings of being blocked, helpless and hypersensitive to all women. Masking his anger with indifference was the safest way to deal with most New York City women. Most were hard as nails from the “click click click” of their high-heeled shoes to the cold-as-steel way they nearly sideswiped him, plunging themselves through the narrow downtown sidewalks of the East Village. Annoying and uncomfortable yes. But true terror was being hit by a car or a speeding bike flying down some grimy street going the wrong way. Delivery people could kill with their speed, or break your back with their weight if they rear-ended you. There were worse things than abuse. He knew so well the pulse of the downtown bike-street-world, for he had three and rode everywhere, even during the tortuous snows and black ice of winter.
* * * * *
He was in fifth grade. They were living in St. Paul Park, a suburb of St. Paul. The neighborhood was made up of blocks and blocks of tan or aqua, two-tone, ranch-style houses. He had a best friend, Roger Brown. They were inseparable. Steve was intoxicated by everything from Roger’s voice, to his brown eyes, to his slightly dimpled chin, to his soft, fine, babyish brown hair with that crazy cowlick on the top of his head, like a single, alien antennae. One day they were climbing trees on the outskirts of the suburb where the monotonous line of houses met a newly plowed farmer’s field bordered by a single line of pine trees. Steve climbed up one tree with Roger right behind him. High up, he stopped climbing and just hugged the trunk, then grabbed onto a higher branch and hung, kicking his legs.
“Help me, help me Roger, I’m stuck, and I’m gonna fall, I’m gonna fall!” He screamed. He loved playing the helpless female to Roger’s boy-man hero.
“Just hang on, it’s alright, it’s alright,” Roger said, climbing until his head was level with Steve’s waistline. Steve imagined he and Roger were hugging each other. How could he make this happen?
“I’m gonna fall, I’m gonna fall.”
“No you won’t, I won’t let you. I’ve got you. There.” Roger reached up and put his arms around Steve. Steve could feel Roger’s head burrowing into him, the hot breath of the boy’s mouth against his stomach.
“I love you, Roger Brown,” said Steve. They stared at each other.
“I love you” Roger said “And I would never let you fall, you know that. You know I’m your best friend.” Oh the smell of him! That soapy, clean, boy’s smell excited him so and made him feel hard and hot and good between his legs. He pulled himself up onto a branch away from Roger and sat, slightly above him. Then, flexing both his legs and extending them out to rest on Roger’s shoulders, he playfully squeezed the other boy’s head with his ankles and feet.
“I’ve got you now” he said smiling, laughing. Roger, staring straight back at him put his hands on both Steve’s ankles.
“No, I’ve got you” he said. The pine tree was swaying slightly in the wind, as a faint, autumn wind rocked them together. Roger’s house was far away, the last line of cookie cutter houses blocks and blocks away, stretching out and disappearing into the dark crimson Minnesota sunset. “We should get going back” said Roger, letting go of Steve’s ankles.
In the same moment, Steve’s legs went soft as he dropped them. He climbed down a few feet until he was even with the other boy, sitting across from the limb that Roger was perched on. “I want to hug you,” he said. “OK” said Roger. Steve put his arms around the other boy and his body was flooded with fire and feelings like hot stars. He felt alive, he felt safe. He wanted to keep holding onto Roger forever. He wanted to fly with him up to the top of the pine tree and leap up into the grey, green, dusky sky where the stars were beginning to appear. He wanted to stay frozen in this moment with this boy, forever.
“I love you”. “No, I love you” “No—I love you.” This went on and on until they were both laughing, drunk on their own silliness and the smell of pine boughs and the cool air in the dusky sky and the stars glittering even stronger now. Climbing down the tree practically together, they both jumped off the lower branches and onto the soft earth of rusty needles that felt like fleshy bodies underneath their feet. On the black loam of the ground where the needles were bare and the earth showed through, they both stood facing each other. Steve played with Roger’s hand, then Roger moved his hand in response, touching Steve’s stomach. Steve moved his hand to touch Roger’s cheek. It was soft, soft as the fur of a cat, soft as his Grandmother’s white, silk slips. He fantasized wearing a slip, playing dress up with Roger and just twirling and twirling until he fell into Roger’s arms. He wanted to run away and pretend scream as Roger the “dangerous monster” ran after him. Then, he would let Rober catch him and they would fall together, struggling and wrestling onto the ground. All this went through his mind as they kept holding hands and started back through the plowed cornfield. Their feet sank slightly into the soft, rich dirt of the earth, as they walked on the plowed, soft furrows of the field. Carefree, they kept holding hands and swung them in time as they walked. It was safe to touch, they were all alone. There was nothing and no one else to separate them.
* * * * *
His Father, who worked for the railroad, was again transferred and so the family had to move from St. Paul Park to Milwaukee. Roger was gone, all his fifth and sixth grade Minnesota friends, gone. For the sake of economics, his Father rented the upper floor of a dull but affordable two family house in a working-class suburb of Milwaukee called Cudahy. As Shorewood, Fox Point and Whitefish Bay were the more white-collar suburbs, poor, working-class Cudahy was more like an embarrassing armpit of one, a dreary collection of corner taverns, all featuring Pabst Blue Ribbon or Schlitz beer. Years ago Patrick Cudahy had founded a pig slaughterhouse that became a million dollar meat packing plant. The plant’s sickening stench languished over the town a few nights out of every week, depending on where you lived, year in and year out.
It was seventh grade, 1967 and Junior-fucking-horrible high. Moving from Minnesota with its endless array of friendly kids to shadow-land Cudahy and its class system of hoods and jocks was like moving to another universe. Steve had never experienced so many mean bullies with Polish names; all ski this and ski that. And they were nasty. One winter, near a frozen pond across from his house, a snot-nosed, red-faced boy named Clarence Rice came up to him and starting beating the shit out of him for no reason. Steve just cried and became his punching bag. Word got around that he didn’t know how to fight back and it became open season on him. Boys in gangs would chase him home after school trying to jump him, yelling “Faggot, fem, girl, homo.” Throughout 7th and 8th grade, he was tortured daily by greasy-haired goons and he was too paralyzed to fight back because he didn’t know how. He continued to hang-on to his “anti-boy” streak, and hold dear all things girlish from his childhood. This reluctance to fight was also a result of the crippling effects of his mother lover experience, i.e., in crises, never fight back, just hold your breath, take it, and “play dead.”
At the beginning of his first year of school in Cudahy Junior High, his parents bought him glasses and he made a fetish of continuously taking them on and off, using them as a prop. The simple black frames made him feel like a brainy girl, a special, glamorous, sort of geek or a bookworm. He began having problems falling asleep, for it was all but impossible to filter noises. “Please turn down the T.V.” he kept complaining to his parents, for his bedroom was right next to the living room. He could always hear the sounds of the news and then the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and it’s idiotic laugh track. Having a talent to amuse, during 8th grade he discovered he could imitate Bobby Kennedy with ease. This went over big, he even had the bullies laughing and it distracted them from torturing him in homeroom. Until Kennedy was shot.
During this time, he learned how to masturbate while taking a bath. The first time he came it was a sickening sensation, he thought he was going to puke and his insides felt like he was going to shit them out. But the pain quickly passed into a weird, wild, peppery pleasure and pictures of boys and men added to the pleasure a thousand-fold. There were men on tanning oil bottles, and occasionally pictures of nude men’s butts from the underground newspaper ads (for forbidden, X-rated, Andy Warhol films). He procured these on visits to downtown Milwaukee bookstores where radical publications were taboo and readily available to 13-year-olds. Once he even found a page from a nudist magazine and the power of seeing naked men’s cocks was unreal and electric. Best of all were his brother’s bodybuilding magazines. In his bedroom, he fashioned a self-screwing sex device by cutting off one end of a plastic container of Coppertone Suntan cream. He could make himself cum with it just by lining it with any kind of lubricant, inserting his dick in and turning it round and round. Heaven. And the tube caught all the milky, spicy-smelling sperm. He stored the thing in an eave spout outside his bedroom window. Sometimes he felt the urge to work himself, and, longing for something different and to be very dirty, he would lift his legs over his head shooting his cum into his own mouth. It tasted like sea-foam and eggs. It was fun to make a mess on his own face, aiming for his wide-open mouth. When he did this, he imagined he was taking back his own power, and by eating his cum, recharging himself.
* * * * *
One night his Mother, dressed in her usual mannish slacks, and one of his Father’s short jackets, took their neurotic Dachshund, Benji out for a walk. Steve was almost asleep but the barking of the dog woke him up. It went on and on, getting louder and more agitated. He became afraid thinking someone was attacking his Mother. He jumped out of bed, still in his pajamas and plunged down the steps from their upstairs apartment, running out onto the sidewalk. Images of her on the ground, bleeding were running through his head. He would bend down, and hold her head in his arms. Oh God where was she? Where was she? Then he saw her a few short yards away. She was fine, standing fully erect, Benji greeting him with agitated barking. “Are you alright?” he asked her, out of breath “I thought you were hurt, in an accident maybe.” “Oh God Steve yes, I’m all right” his Mother retorted, annoyed. She seemed disgusted by his girlish, dramatic arrival to rescue her when nothing was wrong. “Benji was just barking at another dog. What are you wearing? Get back in the house and get to bed you have school tomorrow.” Crestfallen and hurt, he returned to his bedroom alone.
* * * * *
Cudahy was as ugly as it’s name. He postured and feigned being tough, though he hadn’t the slightest idea of what tough was. He willed himself to have crushes on girls in a halfhearted attempt to fit in. But he secretly desired boys and constantly, lustily daydreamed about certain classmates from gym class with tight, wiry six-packs and spindly legs. Kurtis Slovinsky, Mark Snowpeck, Daniel Delaney, they were all Greek boys beckoning him with their bellies then coldly turning away in the showers, their bodies glistening with jewels of water, so inviting yet forbidden. The jocks with square jaws and hard-muscled bodies were always ridiculing him for his ugly, soft, girlish, pear-shaped body. Their perfect bodies were always beckoning him in spite of their cruelty, disdain and the constant, unwritten rule never to stare openly at them when naked before or after traumatic gym class. Their bodies shimmered in the showers with promises of taboo touch, calling out to him, tempting him to get hard. He didn’t dare, but when he thought no one was looking, he stole quick glances, gazing at the down of their pubic hair and their dicks furtively, the ripped rawness of their stomachs magnetically riveting his eyes and attention. One boy, a tall, beautifully proportioned, dark blond named Keith looked like a surfer with a soft, downy moustache sprouting over his thick, strawberry lips. Steve longed to kiss those lips and caress the boy’s cleft chin, and dark gold, long, silky hair. He thought of velvet, and the wild fur of a cat. He recalled the soft cheek of Roger Brown his best friend. Steve remembered that clean, soapy smell of him and pressing him close in the pine grove as they walked, hand in hand through that plowed cornfield that twilight night back in Minnesota three or was it four or five years ago? Where was Roger now?
Years later, in the 80’s, while he was back in Minnesota visiting a friend, he located Roger’s number in the phone book and called him. The dowdy, uptight, middle-aged man on the other end of the phone sounded like something between a frightened rabbit and a perplexed curmudgeonly uncle. Yes he vaguely remembered he had a friend in fifth grade in St. Paul Park and possibly they’d spent time together. In all of five minutes Steve got it that that brown-eyed boy in the pine boughs with the fine, babyish hair and the crazy cowlick like a single, alien antennae was long dead. Steve apologized that it was probably a wrong number, and hung up.
* * * * *
In the East Village, he sometimes imagined that everyone who saw him knew he did sex massage. In reality people passing on the street weren’t thinking of him at all. East Village New Yorkers tended to be obsessively self-involved or attached to their iPhone as if it were another appendage. As he aged, life in his neighborhood got tougher and the cold distance between himself and people widened with their automated ways, frenetic speed, and the overall death of cruising. Sometimes there were passing smiles, mostly there was just manic passing. Kids traveled in drunken hordes Friday and Saturday nights. Single men often passed him and spit as if to denigrate his open, searching eyes. Everyone was armored, hard, ready for a fight or a confrontation. City life after so many years began having a grueling edge to it. As he aged, the big break, the love of a lifetime, and the elusive dream of success, all took a back seat to the challenge of aging, maintaining health and living on a fixed income.
But he was a pirate, a renegade spirit, and with that, came the perks of doing M4M massage. It felt hot to be used, and he had developed a marvelous finesse to having sex with massage clients. He loved to receive that signal of a man’s hand gently touching his cock, beckoning him to respond. Most of his interactions with client’s involved mutual release. When a client didn’t “go there” it was highly unusual. Most did, this was especially true with Kyle Jay Down Low.
Kyle was a very athletic, thirty-something entrepreneur seriously on the DL. When he first began booking with Steve, it was fabulous. Then After a few years, however, Kyle’s sessions turned into real work with Steve becoming a kind of fuck doll. When Kyle made an appointment, he insisted on using the bed and not a table. Often, he loved to be under the covers with Steve. In Steve’s mind, this was a violation for Steve hated sleeping on sheets mussed with client’s fluids. Kyle would push Steve’s body around in bed if he were a bag of potatoes. His demands were endless, but it was all faux fucking. It was becoming harder and harder for Steve to stay hard. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even fucked Kyle; for now the honeymoon was definitely over. When Kyle came, it was a relief. Thank God, the session was over. Once Kyle even exclaimed “Isn’t this the best sex you’ve ever had?” He was too dumb to recognize the pause that followed, followed by Steve responding with a half-hearted “Yeah totally!” Kyle tended to book on the spur of the moment, when his girlfriend left their apartment. There would be that quick phone call or text and next Kyle would burst in like a tsunami, a ten-minute session on the way to or from the airport or even ditching his controlling girlfriend while they were out dining with friends and waiting to be seated! It wasn’t important to Kyle that Steve even cum anymore. There was little solace to be found in the fact that Kyle’s body was cut, sculpted and ripped like a lanky Michelangelo’s David. Sex work was work. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Kyle visited Steve on two occasions without paying. His excuse was that he didn’t “want to do anything but suck Steve’s dick” which Steve realized was Kyle’s subtext for “I’m not going to pay.” Without the pay, the fireworks were gone. Kyle began talking about loving him, loving him! To Steve this lame phrase was a poor substitute for the missing C-note on the table. It was time to fire the client, and oh what a relief it was to block his number.
The on-line world of gays was populated by horny-men texting “What’s up?” followed by “Generous?” or skinny, uncut twinks pursuing him like hungry jackals. A fair amount hated him instantly for his preferences. Another minority despised him for being older; an annoying reminder that youth faded and old age was inevitable.
He wasn’t a machine, he felt everything. And he did it again and again, with each new man, with each new client, whenever he was invited to. No matter how fat, old, young or hot, sometimes even no matter how much the butt stench was ripe with dingleberries, no matter how he cringed whenever his hands went over a blackhead, pimple, wart or boil; no matter how many times he was ordered to “don’t touch the hair,” etc. However, after all was said and done, he was grateful, for it was some form of human contact and connection. The upside was that the sessions were limited to an hour, so getting into other people’s shit was minimized. But sometimes, he pondered on how the work was affecting him in the long term, through the years. How did make him callous? Or steal his spontaneity and exacerbate his already strong penchant for being a loner? At certain watermarks in his life, he felt everything from angry hurt to lust to love. But after all the unspeakable acts of whoring that he experienced in the bodywork, when he reached a quiet, meditative place after all the activity, he forgave himself; and he forgave all the men. For, after all it was just business wasn’t it? No need to take anything at all personally. Being bitter was such a waste of energy.
Again, he pondered the first erotic memory of his Mother, as the curse it was, and he wondered if, when she dies, would he be free of these memories? He wanted to be more authentic in every aspect of his life but sex and pleasure were a ride he couldn’t resist.
A blazing summer day and a dying Mother. Why was it he was becoming more and more aware of contrasts? He'd first begun to notice back in those furtive years of early East Village-hard-core-living that nothing was perfect. But now this wisdom seemed to rule life itself. A little touch of death, disease, and decay existed in everything, every moment. The Buddha was spot-on about this. He named it even. Interdependence, the concept that the living rose you see, so lush and red now, is also now withering and dying—now. Lush and rot, pain and joy, peace and violence, hate and love, always opposites in pairs; and opposites always together as one, Interdependence.
She loved him too much, and his love for her was far more complex than any simple son’s love for his Mother, for she was much more; lover, older sister, secret friend, and tomboy compatriot. He was the bent tree that grew from the twisted twig. Karma dictated that now he had to serve her.
He reflected on the horror of watching her suffer. He saw it too, as an opportunity for him to rise to his best in caring for her. Death frightened him, but he could pretend, acting as if he was strong and courageous. Besides, part of him was strong and courageous. He had been massaging family members at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx one day a week for more than three years now. There, the dying stayed upstairs; out of sight. You seldom heard the sounds of grief, it didn't fit into Calvary’s business model of a clean and neat death; something unseen and unheard. "Where life begins" the commercials said. But in his massage room, in the Family Care Center, his hands felt the ravaging, racking heaves of grief as family members collapsed onto his table, their bodies hungry for some soothing touch of sanity to counteract the malfeasance of death that stole away their loved ones on the floor above.
Calvary was an end of life hospital, a ten-minute walk from the Parkchester subway stop on the Six train about an hour from downtown Manhattan. A large aquarium marked the entrance to the Family Care Center on the first floor. One day during his massage shift, he pressed the button and waited for the regular elevator to take him down from the third floor. Instead, the service elevator stopped. He glanced at the sign warning people in big red letters that this elevator was for employees only, not for regular passengers. When the door opened, he got on, for, he was an employee, although a free-lance one. The two heavy-set, black female, nurse technicians stepped back a few inches to give him space. They were accompanied by a coffin canvas on top of a gurney. He knew underneath the canvas was the body of a patient very recently expired, on its final journey to the basement morgue. He smiled and nodded toward the two workers, who ignored him. He also noticed a pile of file folders and some sheets and towels had been placed on top of the canvas.
"--and so my cousin was there too, girl can you imagine dat? She be hittin' on dat man like nobody's business any time soon. We be laughin', da bof a us, so hard I could a done lost my shit in dat place, you know what I'm saying? Sheeeit--I don't know when I done had so good a time as dat!"
"Oh my God, my God girl, what’d she say when she done found out he was married?" They both began to laugh explosively. He was holding his breath, thinking that their behavior, not to mention the stacking of the items on top of the canvas gurney was disrespectful, and insensitive. He kept a blank expression, averting his face from their ridiculous pink and blue floral print pajama uniforms and their animated faces. He knew if he said anything, revealed any kind of disapproving twitch, in a blink, the happy patter would stop and turn toxic toward him.
He thought about offering some ultra-gay, queenly comment, this always seemed to integrate well into Afro-centric interactions of high, guffaw, laughter-release sessions but passed on it. There was something morbid about making a joke right next to a body with rigor mortis setting in. He reflected that if he worked here full-time, day after day, he would probably have a different coping mechanism in dealing with dying, the featured product at Calvary. As it was, working only one day, one shift a week, he felt more like a visitor or a guest than an employee and he preferred it that way. He actually welcomed the formal atmosphere of the hospital too, for it forced him to be aware of his persona at all times. Downtown M4M massage had an element of chaos; it was easy to get sloppy. Here one always had to be self-aware with the clients, patients and staff, for it was the real world of real massage and giving comfort; not the helter-skelter, semi-serious, sensual world of men’s ass-massage. There, every moment seemed to bleed toward the big reveal of a cock in the hand, both his or his client's--or a fabulous blow job by a client if he was lucky (on rare occasions, him giving).
In a few seconds, the elevator doors opened and he arrived at the ground-floor level. Directly in front of him and across the hallway there was a huge dais, and on top of it, a gigantic bible waited, open and forbidden. To the right were automatic glass doors that swished open for ambulance arrivals of patients only, over the door, a large, red "No Exit" sign warned visitors away. How many times had he passed this entrance and witnessed a patient's arrival? Often, it was an elderly woman with dementia, a hopeless color of grey, looking terribly frail and pale; emaciated, their eyes staring upward in a daze, riddled with trembling, or still as a frozen cocoon, their toothless mouths extending open and back like Munch’s "The Scream." They would be strapped into the stretcher for transport to prevent them from falling, escaping or hurting themselves. "Where Life begins, where life begins" the voice-over of the commercial was looping through his head. He took a left and walked through the clean, bright, institutional halls, pass the chapel. The smell was a combination of sanitizer and library. "Quiet, please, service in progress" the square, little, black and chrome sign with the tiny, white letters affixed to it, welcomed him and reminded him to control himself. It always seemed to be there and always had the same message, whether or not a service was actually in progress. It was a warning to visitors, a reminder to speak in hushed tones and to please at all costs, no laughing! He headed toward the fish tank, the landmark for the Family Care Center. There, in the back room, his massage table waited for him and for clients.
Jane, his boss for the past three years was a sweet but tough, gentle, overweight, working-class Bronx Italian mama. She was also a major fag-hag who loved to quote Mae West, talk “show business,” finding inner peace, pain control or her family dramas. She’d also recently retired to be replaced by Jill, a skinny, wiry, nervous, neurotic social worker with a continually anxious-paranoid look on her face. Jill was also a close friend of Debbie the head honcho at Calvary who was both a social worker and a lawyer. Steve smelled fear coming off Jill the first moment they met. She was intolerable as a supervisor when they were alone, with the tiniest details setting her off to a near state of panic. But with family members, her monstrous persona transformed into a plastic, sticky-soft mask of warmth and ooey-gooey compassion. She knew how to sooth the visitors coming to escape the horror of death playing out in the rooms of the dying upstairs. But she loved to micro-manage him incessantly, with talons as sharp as straight-edged razors, and thousands of magnifying-glass eyes like a human fly, just the opposite of Jane who was very chill and hands-off. Jill controlled or ignored him and when she wasn’t being whiny or controlling, her cold shoulder clearly expressed her disapproval of him. He detected it just beneath her fake smile. He didn’t know why there was such tension between them. He suspected she was homophobic or, possibly she was jealous, for though she was his supervisor he must have made five times her salary.
Jill wasn't pretty. But she had an odd beauty with one hazel eye slightly lighter than the other one; and her nose a bit too big for her face. Then there was a strange tomboyish quality that both turned Steve on, and distracted him. Jill’s hint of naughtiness was like the dark side of the moon, shrouded with coldness and distance. One morning, Steve was prepping the massage room, while Jill sat at her desk, a few feet away in the next room, playing through her voice mail messages and swearing like a drunken sailor. Many of the voices sounded elderly and spoke slowly, with lots of pauses and questions. Jill’s responses rivaled a ribald drag queen’s opening monologue on a Saturday evening at a tacky roadside club outside a truck stop somewhere in the outer reaches of New Jersey. She played through the litany of voice mail messages on high volume and responded rakishly to each one.
Jill: (Beep) “OK, OK, Mrs. Harvey, what the fuck is your fucking number?”
Steve was laughing to himself and as she continued playing messages. He felt as if she knew she was making him laugh; and she was enjoying doing it.
(Beep) “Jesus fucking Christ when are you coming Mr. Donaldson—when—the fuck—are—you—coming? I got it, I got it that your wife is sick you asshole but when the fuck are you checking her into this fucking place?”
It was during these private moments when Jill showed her naughty side that Steve was triggered by her for she could be funny as hell. But Steve knew that joining in and sharing with
After he finished a massage, and when the client emerged from the room, Jill was full of florid exclamations of "How was it? How do you feel? Was it fabulous?” This was always aimed directly at the family member while totally ignoring him. He felt like the anonymous pair of hands that made the magic happen, although never acknowledged for his part in the transformation of his clients from feeling like burned out and exhausted caregivers to feeling halfway human again. She treated him like a service with a pair of hands. It wasn’t that much different than downtown, where essentially, he was a tool for the male clients’ pleasures. As time went on, friction grew in their every interaction, as if they were allergic to each other. He felt he was too powerful for her to supervise; and being his supervisor, this was fatal; he knew his days were numbered. He was sure she would get him fired and replace him with a friend, for that was the way all people in power worked.
That was so far away now. Seemed like miles, though only an easy hour away on the train. Here and now, the summer was so brilliant on this bluff, with the river below. What did his Mother’s pain portend? Was death coming to be with him now, like a silent companion? What was that prayer his Grandmother had said? The word Christ could so easily be replaced by death;
"Death is the head of this house, the unspoken guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation. Amen."
It was time to go back inside the dark monolith of the Garrison Institute. Steve got up from the bench. It was time to sit again, inside. To affix himself bolt upright on the pillows and reflect past the numbing throat-clearing of the guru, beyond that aversion, and below it to the deeper meaning of the words being spoken. Detachment from clinging. Isn't that what he was here to study? But wasn't that what he did already when he dealt with death and dying and yes, sensual work? He was in a retreat to step back, to reflect on it all.
But whereas death before was only dealt with in a second hand at a part-time job, now it would be in his face, up front and personal all the time, while taking care of her. Now, there was a new companion, a new presence in his life. He could no longer, wittily refer to himself as being a feral, commitment-phobe. For now, there was a new manage-a-trois, himself, his Mother and death. He put his phone and journal away, stood up from the bench, stretched and walked the grassy bank down the bluff, back toward Garrison Institute. The grass felt moist and alive under his feet. Here were the cool, temple-like steps built into the ground that led up to the main entrance. The huge wooden door was open, and inviting like the lowered drawbridge of a castle. He left the birds, the wisps of lavender in the air, and the sparkling river with its sailboat of tanned bodybuilders in Speedos behind. Inside was the key. Inside he could at least try to be a little better and a little wiser before his time came.