At the New York City spa where I am a massage practitioner, my client has had an erection during our session. My Irish colleague with blond ringlets says: “Flick it. Through the sheet.” Kelly’s bright red nails click as she demonstrates. For her, a penis rising is not a failing, nor a rebuke. I try hard to create an environment of healing for the clients but a cyclone of memories robs my life of joy.
When I was a baby-ballerina, I started receiving regular bodywork to manage pain. My extension was never good, my turnout equally flawed, but I was a dedicated bun head: hair coiffed, except for two kiss curls next to my ears (my mum loved them). Even when my mum got sick, I never missed a ballet class. When my mum got breast cancer, there were no pink ribbons on “you got this, girl!” mugs, no support other than a whisper network of body workers who knew how to treat underarm edema and scar tissue.
Into that whisper network stepped has-been hippies, former psychedelic light designers for rock concerts—Ron and Annie. A surgeon cut out the tumors, but Ron saved my mother’s body. Rolfing—structural integration—helped edema decrease, range of motion increase, and scar tissue become pliable. It was an easy two-step to believe Ron might help my baby-ballerina body, too.
After years helping me become a stronger dance student, Ron the Rolfer pinned me on his kitchen counter, pressed his erection against me, held my face with massive hands that had freed my tight pelvic floor fascia—all while his wife and daughter, my parents, and brother, watched Monty Python. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” sings Eric Idle.
Months later, my mom asked me outright, “Has Ron ever made you uncomfortable?” My mom was worried about their young daughter. I stood next to Mom while she phoned Ron’s wife Annie. Then, Mom handed the phone to me, and Annie said: “I knew what was happening, but I didn’t stop it, Renée, because I thought you wanted it.”
My big brother Ian was my first massage-practice body. He said I massaged him as if he were a gerbil, guinea pig, puppy, until one session during effleurage on his quads, after a full year of once-a-week practice, Ian said, “Good job, Buzzy.”
When he was my practice body, my brother’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis was a decade off in the future. Ian practiced yoga daily, so his muscles were pliable and the perfect kind on which to practice. For the entire year of my massage training, every week Ian took a break from studies for his undergraduate degree in history to let me practice all the different bodywork modalities I was learning. I was only twenty-one years old when I enrolled in massage training because I wanted to heal bodies; I had seen how bodywork helped bring my mom’s body back to function, and I wanted to help others to do the same. But after I became a licensed professional and Ian moved away to pursue a Ph.D. in American History, I never gave my brother another massage. In retrospect, with his later diagnosis, I wish we had never stopped.
I leave every shift at the day spa feeling inadequate. Before moving to New York City to pursue a dance career, I ran my own massage practice on Front Street in Missoula, Montana. One time a client had an unfortunate physiological reaction when I massaged his ribs: “Please, more there.” I complied by repeating myofascial work on his intercostal muscles. This client never returned, but I lacked the ability to sort out with him what had happened.
I never tried to sort out what had happened with Ron. I stored his assaults in my brain so long the freezer burned them.
At the day spa in NYC, a dick rises, leaving a sticky spot on the spa’s signature peach-colored linen. I move to the client’s feet, push hard on the acupressure point on the fleshy space between the piggy’s big toe and the piggy’s toe that stays home.
After this erection on the massage table, I am flooded with memories of Ron’s assault when I was a teenager. My hands burn. I hold them under cold water, elevate them, use what is left of my strength to massage my wrists so that I don’t get carpal tunnel syndrome. When I try to sleep, tingling fingers wake me up. I vomit all the time.
I walk to work, stop at the corner of Park Avenue, phone. The front desk attendant begs me to see clients; six sessions are booked. I smell the oil, cover my mouth as I gag. This quitting does not erase Ron’s rasp: “I hope you will finally learn how to heal people in a different way than sexually, Renée.”
I quit the spa, and I quit giving massages to men.
When my big brother Ian moves into Ron’s now ex-wife Annie’s basement apartment, I am a rage volcano, furious that Annie and Ron ever entered our lives. But Ian is very sick with multiple sclerosis. He has left his faculty position and needs a place to live. I did not know Ian and Annie kept in touch. Did I tell Ian about Annie’s ex husband’s assault? Where would Ian have lived if I had?
My brother dies by suicide in Annie’s basement apartment. Annie told him the world needed him, as if while MS ravaged his body her curated positivity would inspire. Ian never suffered gerbils or fools; he had run out of money to pay rent.
What I remember about those Bainbridge Island family movie nights is how much fun it all was popping popcorn and singing Monty Ponty songs while endless rain poured down outside.
How much joy we all shared, until we didn’t.
Renée E. D’Aoust (she/her) is the author of Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press). She teaches online at Casper College and North Idaho College, and she lives with her partner in Switzerland. Visit www.reneedaoust.com and find her on Twitter @idahobuzzy.
The human spirit is hard to break, even with hard times like this.