cw: sexual assault

I spend my evening in a cramped apartment on the Lower East Side with an old white woman and her cat. Susan has a reputation in town for being one of the only massage therapists who does not “hold back.” I do not fully comprehend what this means until our first session.

She walks on top you. She spends copious amounts of time piercing your butt cheeks. She contorts you into positions that you still aren’t sure are possible. She sticks a glove in your mouth to massage your jaw. She is honest with you that she fully intends to hurt you. I am honest with her that I keep coming back precisely because she makes me hurt. (LOOP)

There is something beautiful — sacred even — about our honesty. About her strange hands and her familiar touch. About the way we admit our pain so candidly. I have never met anyone so upfront about their desire to hurt me (I wish Susan could have taught my exes a thing or two about naming ones intentions upfront).

On these evenings I am tasked with the effort of making small talk with Susan for the entire two hour session. She is chatty. She has lots of questions about “my generation,” and “the internet,” and “what is it you do again?” The trick is to keep asking her questions so she keeps talking and you don’t have to attempt speak as she drives her elbow into you over and over again.

Tonight I ask Susan how she started doing massage? She tells me that she has always been fascinated by human pain. (Me too.) She tells me that she has devoted her life to understanding how people experience pain and what they can do to cope with it. (Me too.)

“What can we do to cope with “it,” Susan?” 

I think we have different “it’s” that haunt us when we both go to our beds alone after the session but tonight the specifics feel inconsequential.

She tells me a story.

One evening a woman came by with some bad knots in her leg. She had no idea what was going on. When Susan started to work on her this woman started weeping uncontrollably. Susan asked her if she was pushing too hard but the woman said, no go deeper. So Susan kept digging and digging into the night and suddenly that woman sat up and had a flashback to a memory from long ago. She remembered that more than twenty years ago when she was a young girl she was assaulted on the way home from school. Her assailant broke her leg so she couldn’t get away. When she got home her mother didn’t believe her and scolded her for being late. Susan sat there with that stranger and breathed the same air and I’m sure her cat meowed and her clock on the wall ticked as she wrote “I believe you” with her elbow on that woman’s back.

Susan tells me that her job as a masseuse is not necessarily to get rid of the pain, but rather to bear witness to it. To recognize it. To affirm it. She says that we live in a country — a world — that teaches us at every level that our hurt is a story we made up. And we internalize that to our core and write it into every muscle in our body. “I am wrong, I am wrong, I am wrong.” She says that sometimes acknowledgment can be its own sort of antidote. That sometimes people just need to hear that what happened to them was not their fault. That people tend to know what is best for themselves, they’ve just been told over and over again that they don’t. [STOP]

Sometimes I just need to hear that what happened to me was not my fault. So every month I climb up the stairs to a cramped apartment in the Lower East Side with an old white woman and her cat and she massages me — I mean she performs her own form of poetry. And both of us are searching for ways to survive, to find meaning and substance in the intangible, to delve and dig and prod and jab and yank and pull on all of those parts of ourselves still stuck deep in there.

So sometimes I forget my own power. So sometimes I need to be hurt in order to heal. So sometimes I need to be reminded that my body is mine. (So sometimes I need to be reminded I have a body). So sometimes I want to cry on the street when I am surrounded by hundreds of people wondering about all of the “its” that they are going home with that night. So sometimes there is something refreshing about the intimacy between strangers: its unfamiliar familiar honesty, its piercing candidness. So sometimes Susan does not get my politics or my life but she touches my body and she understands that there are things in the world that cause me a great deal of pain. And sometimes that feels like enough.

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