Rachel is wearing herring bone patterned red and yellow yoga pants, a black t-shirt with Dolly Parton’s smiling face on it, and a faded headband (the kind Richard Simmons might wear). She feels heavier than she looks. I’m lying on my back with the soles of my feet pushed together. There’s already sweat at my temples. I unclench my eyelids and try to get a glimpse at exactly how Rachel is tearing me apart.
Her small, freakishly strong, hands are on the inner part of my thighs, proximal to my knees. She’s in a raised plank position, her arms shaking with the evenly applied tension to my legs. Her toes are the only part of her body touching the floor, somewhere behind her.
The lateral parts of my knees are supposed to be on the floor, but they are nowhere near the carpet.
“Jesus, you’re tight,” Rachel says. She clears her throat. She grunts. “I mean, how are you doing?”
“If. I. Break. Do I get. My. Money back?” I stammer.
I’d found Rachel through my therapist, Dr. Hereford. For the past many years Dr. Hereford had listened to me tell her how my marriage was falling apart, and how insufficient I felt as a father, at life and at work, how I used to be addicted, was addicted.
“There’s nothing wrong with reading,” Dr. Hereford said.
“The way I do it, there is.” But I never elaborated, and I’m a horrible communicator, so she just assumed it was nothing.
“When was the last time you cried?” asked Dr. Hereford.
“I can’t remember.”
“You don’t need to be tough in here, Steven.”
“I’m not. I’d tell you. It’s not like I’ve never cried. I just can’t remember the last time.”
Dr. Hereford asked how flexible I was. I told her, “No very.” But meant: Not at all.
“The psychological community has been looking at the mind/body connection for some time. There’s sufficient proof that a flexible body can extend to the mind. And vice versa. We can do the mind work in here.” She gestured around her office with one hand. There were so many books whose spines I’d eyed and pages I’d dreamed of. I could smell them, could almost taste the residual oils left by other hands. But I hadn’t touched. I hadn’t actually sniffed them. “Steven, would you be open to doing the body work with a colleague of mine?”
“Um, sure,” I said wondering how long it would take for the DSM-IV, behind Dr. Hereford’s head, to be consumed.
“Here’s Rachel’s card.”
I’d taken Rachel’s all black business card with the white lettering (which just read ‘Rachel’—no last name—above the words ‘Professional Opener’) and palmed it on my way out of the office. Inside my sedan, in the parking lot under a single streetlight, I smelled the card deeply and put the card in the cup holder and tore a page out of the paperback Louis L’Amour book The Warriors Path that I kept in my glove box for emergencies but hadn’t actually used until then, and put the title page in my mouth and started chewing.
This is how I’d always digested books: one page at a time. From start to finish.
There’s such little ink on a title page. This one just had the author, the title, and a tiny patented Bantam stamp. The more ink, the more knowledge. The more knowledge, the better we are. So, let’s have ink for every meal. I know it doesn’t rhyme. Not everything has to rhyme.
“Don’t look at me, look at the ceiling,” Rachel says.
“It’s fine. It’s just…Jesus you’re tight.”
“Yeah, you said that.”
“I know. I know. Do you hear your tone? See, Steven, it’s that kind of pushback that’s keeping your knees reacting like a goddamn vice right now.”
“Right, sorry.” Rachel used more Jesus and Goddamns than I’d ever heard from a professional outside of the construction business.
“Have you been doing the goddamn exercises on your own?”
“My ass, you have been.”
How could I? Happy Baby pose felt childish. Frog pose was not my friend. Reclined Bound Angel is what we’re currently in the middle of but without Rachel pushing my legs out it’s not much more than me lying on my back with my knees pointing at the ceiling instead of at opposing walls. It’s all wrong. It’s for nothing.
This is my twelfth session with Rachel.
She’d scheduled three a week for the first month. She’d said we’d need a day in between the spreadings (her word, not mine) so that my adductor longus, adductor brevis, and pectinius muscles could recover. “We’re working with a stage three hip flexor demon,” she’d said during my first consultation. “Get ready to exOrcise this mother. With a capital O.” It took me until the next day to understand where the capital O fit into her sentence. It was while I was looking at an old drawing that Toby had made for me of a green monster eating a purple tank—in the bottom corner he’d signed: LoVe tOby—that I realized it was the wrong kind of exercise Rachel was alluding to.
On my next session I’d told her that when most people say “with a capital (letter)” the word they’re referring to usually STARTS with that (letter), and I quickly learned that it is not in your best interest to correct a person’s verbiage, when said person is trying to wishbone your lower body.
I can feel the sweat beads running down my hairline to the top of my ear. Outlines of the animal kingdom can be found in the contours of Rachel’s white ceiling. I’ve had a lot of time to find them during this month. I’m supposed to be focusing on “opening”, but all I can focus on are animals.
“Focus,” Rachel says.
I think of open doors. Doorways leading down dark stairs. Doorways leading to dark woods. Doorways leading… nowhere.
“Where are you?” Rachel says.
“Jesus! Not good enough. You’re supposed to be making your way to where all those tears are stored.”
“You mean, my in-laws?”
“Very funny. Very funny, Steven. See, that’s how your hips got here in the first place, buddy. Now go there. Go to that place.” She plies one thigh down hard, then the other. I rock side to side. “What is your body not letting you feel?” she demands. “Open that goddamn dam to your emotions, Steven.” Rachel launches her hands off me, hangs in midair for a second—her hands inches off of my thighs—and then lands with full force.
There is a tearing that shoots from my groin to the top of my head. Not tearing: the salient eye fluid. But tearing: a phonebook ripping, a drumstick being pulled from an undercooked turkey, a jagged episiotomy.
My eyes close around the pain to keep the pain in, to stifle any audible cries. Cries won’t make her stop, only tears will.
I flashback to my first books. The way Frankenstein tasted like ultimate misfit-ery. The way A Wrinkle In Time tasted like so many unfoldings. The way Alice In Wonderland made the stars breathe all around me. The way I was late, always late after that.
I can feel Rachel down there, digging her fingers into the meat of my thighs, prying them apart. Trying to reconstitute tears somewhere in me.
Rachel’s frizzy hair is falling over her face, like preloaded springs shooting out of her head. The veins in her hands and forearms are bulging; I can almost see them throbbing with her pulse. Her skin looks misty, not sweaty but damp. All of her is shiny in the flicker of the candlelight around us. There are clouds outside, through the window. There is an absence of bookshelves in her studio apartment.
“Don’t look at me, Steven.”
“Right, sorry.” I look at the zoology hidden in the ceiling. The elephant trunks and monkey tails. The albatrosses and caged lions.
“Look inside. Look inside,” Rachel says. “You are baby Moses. You are seas dividing. You are the bifurcation of a river spreading to an ocean. Think of lying on the plushest pillows. Think of your legs as two wings opening on the wind.”
In the last two weeks I’ve made it halfway through Louis L’Amour’s The Warrior’s Path. It’s not healthy. I pull it out of the glove box only when I need it. I’ve never eaten a western before. It tastes like leather and stoicism and campfires. It tastes like the masculine car freshener of a chain smoker.
In my mind right now I’m opening the book to its new first page and devouring 117 and 118, the front and back, the beginning of chapter XIII. A new chapter always has just a little less ink. It’s so much more nuanced than a title page, not quite as filling as a textually full double-sided printed page. The dense wording can bloat you fast. See, the paper isn’t as filling as the words. And you have to eat a book in order. You can’t just skip to the parts you’re hungry for. You can’t just appetizer your way through a meal.
That’s one of my rules now. No jumping. No cheating. It feels like a step in the right direction I should be taking.
“Good, Steven. I think we’ve gained a full inch here. Keep it up. We’re finally making progress. Good Boy! Keep it up.”
It feels strange, the way Rachel talks to me. Not entirely bad, but I don’t know what to do with it. I have no place for it to go. I have no words here to weigh it down until it’s pushed out. I don’t want the way she talks to me. I don’t want to understand it—the pushing, the accolades, the discomfort of my entire body derived from my hips—but I can’t deny it. And for the first time in a session I’m getting an erection.
Did I already say that I am wearing sweat shorts? Because I am.
When I glance down, to see how bad I’m showing, Rachel is already looking back up at me. Not at my erection, but directly into my eyes.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“What are you doing? You’re supposed to be going deeper.”
“Why are you staring at me?” The more I talk the harder I get. “I’m done. Bronzer. Bronzer!” I scream. Bronzer is our safe-word. I hadn’t understood the reason for a safe-word before. But now I see it. I need it. Some words need to be safe.
“We’re not stopping this time until you cry, Steven. We’re getting to the bottom of you. I know you can do it. I know you can do it, Big Boy. I know you can cry for me.”
My legs are in full convulsion. I can feel Rachel struggling to keep her balance on them. This must be how people torture inflexible terrorists. I would tell her everything if I only knew what she wanted to hear.
Rachel’s arms are shaking, my legs have no rhythm. They have no sense. They’re all muscle in revolt.
I push my torso up with my elbows. Rachel removes one hand from a thigh and shoves me back down. I don’t have the energy to come off the carpet again. I think of dying. I think of my wife Emily dying, or son Toby dying, or daughter Jill dying, just trying to conjure liquid from my eyes. Trying to finish this session, to leave and never come back. But I’m not that imaginative. I know my wife and children are safe. There’s a good chance that I might be dying, but that doesn’t make me want to cry. It makes me want to eat. I’d take anything right now: an album insert, a wide ruled composition notebook, a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet. I would eat the tags out of decrepit clothing, discarded gum wrappers, anything with words, anything with symbols.
“That a boy. That a boy…” Rachel is chanting while seesawing my legs from side to side, gaining momentum, crawling in place on my legs. And my torso is quivering, my neck is spasming, teeth clenching, my lips are joker-smiling. I can feel all the words I’ve consumed without reading. All the ways I’ve hidden from Emily and Toby and Jill by stuffing myself with secrets.
“Look at me, Steven. I want to see when it happens. I want to know the instant you give way.”
I put my chin to my chest to look down at Rachel. If I have an erection, I can’t see it. I can’t feel anything below my navel. My shirt is soaked through and becoming the carpet. I am the carpet, something that just lays there forever. I think of never finishing The Warrior’s Path, of never mouthing the last page, of never holding the spine in my hands and pulling the paperback front and back covers all the way apart and gazing at all the emptiness between them. I realize that I am becoming the open covers and the missing pages and the spreading spine. I can feel my mouth moving. I hear voices colliding like white noise coming from all around me, from within me. The way so many conversations within a crowd becoming invisible again. Become waves. Become an ocean.
Rachel’s eyes are growing so big that I feel like I’m being seen for the first time after returning from a long hiatus in voodoo countries. And her eyes aren’t smiling, her cheeks aren’t rosy. Her mouth isn’t smirking; there’s screaming all around me. And everywhere is the sea of my invisible crowd conversations and the parting Rachel is making through the middle of my sea with her realized terror. An opening she can’t close again. Pandora’s wooden box hatcheted to kindling.
The first droplets hang at the corners of my lashes. But it’s not relief or release that I feel. It’s the beginning of something altogether separate from me