The universe conspired to make me late for work again.
‘I’ve gone over the spreadsheet, Kevin, everything matches up. Look, I’ll call Redman when I get in, okay, I have to go.’
I ended the call. It took me just long enough to switch the radio on again when another call came through. The first few bars of ‘Criminal’ on the alternative station taunted me before I switched it off.
‘I’m locked out of my email account, Lexie.’
I sighed and looked out at the sea of traffic, frozen like the surface of a midwinter lake. I listened to their pleas for help and struggled with a tight knot of sickness in the back of my throat.
‘Did you finish the spreadsheet? I need to take that to Michigan with me tonight.’
The thought of another day of this made my heart and head hurt at the same time.
My coffee had gone cold by the time I pulled into work. My phone rang. Mom.
‘Your dad’s not taking the medicine, Lexie.’
A tight band of pain tightened across my temples and I took in deep breaths.
‘Mom, I will come over tonight.’
This is what I have done for most of my life. Pick up after other people. My parents. My siblings. My colleagues. Lexie, who’s just smart enough to stay in middle management but not courageous enough to strike out on her own for too long or too far.
The moment passed. I walked into work, and started my day with my hand on the door, waiting for the next round of questions and pleas. I had brought my pain in with me, but I hid it. I am spectacular at hiding.
Running was my only means to alleviate the pressure that was my constant companion. I ran half marathons a few times a year, and it became a meditative practice, out in nature, alone with the distance to keep me motivated.
So, when my hamstring started to get sore, I kept going. When I had a cold for the entire summer, I kept going. It never seemed to reflect in my waistline, but I needed that space where I could just be me.
It was a child’s prayer. A band-aid on a scraped knee
The injury left me fighting the urge to snarl and cry at the same time. I hid behind my desk, dealing with outstanding invoices until Laurie brought me a coffee. She wore a pensive expression of concern, reflected in her wide, dewy eyes and overbite.
‘You okay, Lexie?’
I suffered a reflexive pang of guilt. Laurie needed her hand held to send an attachment, but she meant well and she brought in cookies and muffins that she made at home to say thank you.
I told her about the hamstring and she smiled before scurrying back to her desk and fishing in her purse for a business card. She handed it to me.
‘My brother does these iron man triathlon things, probably shouldn’t, but he swears by this guy. Like he’s a Jedi of massage or something.’
I turned the card over in my hand.
SPORTS MEDICINE. MASSAGE THERAPIES.
I went with the initial impulse to deny my own pain in favour of sparing Laurie but I shifted in my seat and was rewarded with a sharp, nauseating stab of agony. I picked up the coffee and pocketed the card then thanked her.
I was great at giving but this had started to become an act of masochism. I decided to make the appointment whilst driving over to my parents. I dealt with Dad in a brief lecture that was equal parts disappointed daughter and drill sergeant. I got home, slathered my hamstring in arnica and emailed explaining my injury as the faint medicinal smell wafted over me. It reminded me of horses and made me slightly dizzy.
He emailed that he had a late afternoon appointment on Friday. If there was going to be a crisis at work, then Friday afternoon would be the best time to leave things in my colleagues’ hands. It would be a good time to escape.
By the time, Friday afternoon came, the pain had me ready to take hostages if it meant getting out of there. I lived with the constant prickle of tears but I had plenty of practice at it. I switched the phone off, sang along to Favourite Things from The Sound of Music which took my mind off things.
I had not taken any time for myself in so long. A medical appointment was about as good as it got. I had built this life, decision by decision, and I had not wondered if it was a place I truly wanted to be. I went to great pains to ensure that I was available and that I was shelter and assistance without ever considering my own needs.
Being good took a toll. It fed the anguish that it was supposed to alleviate. By the time I got into the parking lot, I needed a purging, hasty cry again. Much like the orgasms I gave myself to take the edge off. Like the poetry I wrote that I never shared with anyone.
I want to be good
I want to
up when they
feel they have
But I’m just a girl
Not a tree.
Just a girl who will
never have leaves
or wings or sails
or anything greater
than these two hands.
I dried my eyes and limped into the building. My reflection taunted me but the receptionist grinned at me as I came in. She was a cheerfully middle-aged beatnik with long, white hair and a paisley blouse. She had her spectacles perched on the end of her nose and she grinned.
She was gracious enough to ignore my distress, and I shakily got out what my name was and what time my appointment was.
She offered me tea and told me to sit down. The coffee table was littered with thick, glossy magazines. Enlightenment as lifestyle. Lifestyle as enlightenment. Supermodels with bindis in the lotus position.
Intellectually, I knew that it was good genetics, lighting, makeup and photo editing but it never stopped me from feeling soft and bloated in comparison. I closed the magazine when she brought the tea over.
‘If it helps, I hate those things too.’
I blushed and stammered my apologies but she simply passed me my tea.
‘Why have them then?’ I said.
‘I don’t think anyone looks at them. Mostly, they stare at their phones.’
She returned to her desk as a series of chimes rang through the intercom.
‘You can go in now.’
I got up and smoothed down my skirt.
When I opened the door, I caught the scent of citrus and sandalwood. It made me smile with a quiet pleasure, despite my pain.
‘Good afternoon, be right with you.’
His voice was soft and low. Strong and gentle. He walked through in a black shirt and pinstripe trousers. He had short brown hair, a scrub of beard dark against his olive skin. He had a hooked nose and full, wide lips, a sensual yet rugged set of features.
I might have to undress in front of this man.
I had been drunk with Pete the last time. He had been dutiful in bed, if a little inhibited, but the next morning, he had told me he was moving in with Maria as we ate breakfast together. I had even brought in the bacon that he liked.
She was ten years older, with the complexion of bruised fruit. I had even helped her move last month. If Pete had asked, I probably would have helped him too.
The memory stung like a paper cut.
‘Left hamstring, right?’
I nodded, watching as he pressed his palms together.
‘You can stay clothed. I want to look at the injured area, and relaxation makes it easier for me to do that.’
I agreed to take off my skirt but kept my top and underwear on. He had power and responsibility in this situation. My heart raced with the implications of that.
I looked at my long blue skirt folded over the chair like an unopened curtain in a grieving house. I laid down and looked up at him.
He placed a thick white towel over my thighs, then moved to my left side. He gestured with his hands in an upward motion.
‘Now let’s see what we have here.’
His hands were firm and warm. His caramel eyes took me in with warm curiosity. He asked me to lift my knee to my chest at my speed.
The pain flared through me, flooded my mouth with a thin, nauseous bile. He put a hand on my shoulder.
‘You’re a good girl. I’ve had professional athletes who would cry right now.’
I smiled and flushed as I shut my eyes. He placed the index finger on each hand against the back of my thigh. One just above the back of my knee and the other under my left buttock. The relief rushed in, filling the vacuum of pain. My eyes rolled back in my head with the crude power of relief. He moved his fingers away and took the pain with him.
He helped me test my range of movement and I had it all, without the pain to lash at me. My surprise left me speechless. He gave a warm smile, and I wiped my eyes.
‘God, I bet this is going to be expensive.’
He wiped his hands on a towel and shook his head.
‘Don’t worry about it. It was quick.’
‘I don’t want charity.’ I said.
He frowned and leaned back against the wall.
‘It’s not charity. This is my business and I decide who pays. Look, I had three professional athletes and a movie star who takes a private jet just to come see me. I charge what I want.’
I pressed my teeth together. The discomfort was tangible, and he took no pleasure in it.
‘OK, then I charge you the cost of a root beer and going dutch on a carne asada pizza.’
I chuckled and gave a shy nod.
‘That would be okay. A little weird, but okay.’
He smirked and walked to the small adjoining office.
‘Well, you can pay for the whole pizza then.’
He put on a battered leather jacket and checked his pockets before he gestured to the door.
We walked out and said to the receptionist that she could close up. She closed her computer down and then looked at me.
‘Privileges of being the boss.’
I smirked at the polite confidence he displayed.
‘I should probably go back to the office, you know?’
He stopped and put his hands up.
‘This is you paying your fee for your treatment. You can’t possibly go back to work until you’ve fulfilled that obligation.’
I could have gone back to the office. To my parents. A chorus of obligations that I loved and was hurt by at the same time. I never wanted to let anyone down, but there was something in his smile, his eyes that made me feel safe. An adventure, a small one would not hurt.
I told him to call me Lexie.
I followed him in his car, an Aston Martin to the restaurant. The server recognised him and grinned at the pair of us. We ordered root beers and the carne asada. I put the straw between my lips and enjoyed the chill burst of bubbles on my tongue. I reached for my phone and he shook his head.
‘I’m not stopping you from doing that but have you thought about why you do that?’
‘Make yourself available at your own expense.’
I put my phone away, and he smiled at me.
‘Little acts of courage aren’t bad things in and of themselves.’
I sighed and took another sip of my root beer.
‘Now tell me about you.’ he said.
It started as incidentals. Bitter little knots of truth came up, floating in the stew of myself. He spoke only to ask open questions or repeat things to show his understanding.
He knew the power of listening. The generosity of silence. A man who got things first time.
The pizza was decadence itself. I managed two slices to his four, and we lapsed into a companionable silence as we enjoyed the food. He would gaze at me across the table and towards the end of the meal, picked up a napkin and dabbed it against my cheek. I looked up at the clock on the wall and bit my bottom lip.
He sighed and sat back in his chair.
‘Lexie. They’ll be there waiting for you, but why not listen to that little voice that’s drowned out by everyone else? You keep trying to fix everyone else, but you’ve forgotten how to fix you.’
I looked at him and folded my hands on the table.
‘I don’t have things or people to myself. I just… I want to help everyone.’
He put his hand across the table and rested it atop mine.
‘Who takes care of you? Do you have someone who can do that?’
I shook my head and put my other hand over his.
‘I didn’t say any of that, did I?’
He smiled and tilted his head to one side.
‘No, but I read people pretty well. I understand bodies, how they move, what they tell you and I also listen. Not just to what you say, but what your actions are and what you don’t say.’
I trembled as he ran his fingertips in the spaces between my knuckles.
‘I don’t need advice.’
He shook his head.
‘I don’t want to solve your problems for you, Lexie,’
I smiled at him, my eyes welling up with emotion at the certainty of him.
‘You’re sure of yourself, aren’t you?’
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘I know who I am.’
We stopped outside, and he leaned forward, bringing his lips an inch from mine. I was torn between devilish and seraphic decisions and I made it by putting my mouth to his. He reached up and stroked my cheek, grazing his fingers along the line of my jaw before trailing it down the line of my neck.
‘Do you have plans for the rest of the afternoon?’ he said.
There was a pang of guilt, but much like recovery from any injury, the right touch and the right words, you can be healed of anything.
I told him I didn’t.