I was running a few minutes late picking up my last scheduled client from the waiting room, and when I arrived there was only one person still sitting on the couch. Not a person, a child. She looked to be about twelve and I could barely make her out beneath the oversized cotton robe; a fragile skull struggled to find its way above the mountain of fabric, like a virginal grim reaper.
Legally speaking, I’m not allowed to work on children. Practically speaking, pre-teens aren’t riddled with stress and if they are I’m the wrong kind of therapist to employ. But by the time I’ve reached my final massage, my moral compass points only in the direction of my apartment.
“Olivia? Olivia Montgomery?” I tentatively inquired, hoping she wouldn’t respond.
“Oh, ‘tis I! Indeed!” the child chirped as she stood and extended a hand so frail I feared I’d break it. “Why, it is the greatest of pleasures to make your fine acquaintance!” she sang.
“Alright then,” I cautiously replied as I led her back to the room.
Olivia, it turned out, was authorized by the U.S. government to drink, drive and vote. She was 21 years old and working as a writer for a major fashion glossy. She’d just returned from the “shows” in Europe and was “terrifically exhausted, a mere puddle of stress!” Before I’d reached for my bottle of oil I knew where she was from, what she did, where she lived, and that her colon gave her issues, which she was addressing through both Western medicine and healing crystal therapy. “Oh I’m just unbearably shy,” she gushed, “It absolute pains me to talk about myself. Why I’d rather do almost anything other than jibber jabber about silly willy me!”
Olivia was as physically substantive as a sparrow. Her skin was so fair that I could trace the superhighway of her circulatory system beneath it, and her wide, watery eyes appeared frozen in a suspended state of Christmas morning delight. She was so skinny I could identify each groove of her vertebral column. Every bone in her body seemed as weightless as balsa wood. I had half a mind to pick her up by the scruff of the neck and swing her around in the air—just to see how it felt.
It’s not uncommon for someone so severely underweight to intercept your thought process and explain it away before you can wonder. The reasons rarely feel true. A speedy metabolism isn’t enough to render the knees wider than the thighs, and avoiding meat isn’t a gateway to emaciation. Olivia excused her thinness by way of digestive issues. I can’t begin to say why, but I believed her. Everything about this girl was so high-strung and jittery—it seemed entirely plausible that she’d only have a bowel movement once a week. I couldn’t picture Olivia sitting on a toilet; I could only imagine her slipping into one and furiously treading water in an effort not to drown.
We spent much of that first appointment discussing the pernicious rumor that poor Olivia had an eating disorder, and how she really wished the media would “kindly leave her be!” I played along, but found it hard to believe this kid had an unmanageable problem with published gossip. Every horizontal surface of my apartment is covered with books, but they mostly serve a decorative purpose. Actual reading comes in the form of the celebrity tabloids that litter each common area of the spa. If Olivia were a famous anorexic, I’d have heard of her.
The receptionist who checked her out that night put it most succinctly:
“Is that girl, like, for real?”
Amazingly, Olivia was everything she claimed. Apparently that precocious upstart from upstate had wriggled her way into Manhattan’s exclusive fashion scene by way of social networking. If I felt old sharing a room with young Olivia, I felt downright ancient sharing a universe with her. I can remember the genesis of the virtual life—Myspace pages and Friendster. A handful of acquaintances imbibed in that spirit, but they were the sorts of people whose last names I could never remember. Throwaways. Somewhere along the line other, more tempting online worlds popped up and now, I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have a Facebook page or a Twitter stream. There’s no digital accounting for the number of people who like me, but usually the five fingers of one hand are sufficient in tallying up the total. Between the 17th and 20th of each month, you could fold down four.
I barely made it through that hour alive. My threshold for pretension is so low that I once nipped a promising friendship in the bud over excessive use of the word “lover.” Olivia and I were clearly not a good fit. When I saw she’d booked with me again the following week, I almost requested she be moved to another therapist until I opened the small envelope containing the tip she’d left. Inside was a roll of bills amounting to nearly three times the standard gratuity. Olivia hadn’t exactly endeared my affections, but she’d effectively put a down payment on my willingness to give her a second chance.
The problem with selling your soul is that it’s always done on the installment plan. In exchange for that wad of twenties I had to suffer through weekly sessions of listening to little Olivia yammer on in iambic pentameter about her glamorous, carefree life. Contrary to her protests, my wee client didn’t mind “jibber jabbering” on about herself at all. The name-dropping I could stomach, it was often entertaining, but feeling obliged to disagree with her insincere self-effacing shtick grated on my last nerve.
Every word out of my mouth was delivered in dead panned monotone. Every word out of hers left traces of glitter in the air.
“The thing is, I’m such an absolute misfit, I’ll probably find my dance card empty at Anna Wintour’s Costume Gala!”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“What, crazy daisy me? Why I made such a fool of myself in Italian Vogue that I can never show my face in all of Milan again!”
“No. Really. You’re delightful.”
“Well, you weren’t at Lagerfeld’s showroom last year in Paris when I accidentally…”
Were that not enough, every so often Olivia would switch gears for a moment and proclaim, “Gracious me, I just loathe talking about myself, tell me about you! Tell me everything!”
“There’s really not much to say,” I’d invariably mutter in reply and be met with some version of the following:
“Oh, you’re a caution! Why I’m just a talentless hack scribbling sweet nothings about the new Balenciaga collection, but you—you are a healer! You change people’s lives. It just humbles me to even know you. Absolutely humbles!”
On more than one occasion, Olivia referred to me as her “hero.”
I have a friend who does the same thing. She’s a model. The delicate planes of her face are such that she bought a two-bedroom apartment in London by the age of 25 with money made from sitting still a few hours at a stretch. We met through a mutual acquaintance when she first arrived in New York, and she’s become something of an honorary younger sister to me. When we walk down the street, passersby snap their necks so violently to look at her that I can hear their discs herniating. Every single time we get together, no matter how much I look exactly as I did the time before, she screams, “Oh, Christy, what have you done? You look gorgeous!” as though I’ve just returned from a long vacation with the surgical scars still pink behind my ears. When I’m in a good mood I merely roll my eyes, and when less amiable, I’ll change the subject and inquire as to how she plans to earn a living after thirty. This has gone on now for years.
The more Olivia dispensed these inane flatteries, the more I got it into my head that she was mocking me, and the deeper I entered into a sad state of psychological warfare with a child. On the slighter side myself, I still outweighed little Olivia by a solid forty pounds, and being 14 years her elder I should have known better. But I’ve been nurturing a life-long grudge against people with easy jobs, and I had it in for this client. My irritations amplified when Olivia began failing to show for appointments. Because hers was a jet-set-life-on-the-go, she’d routinely forget having booked a massage on a given night, leaving me with a hole in my schedule and losing an hour of pay.
The camel’s back broke when Olivia’s gratuities started to diminish and she stopped identifying herself as the giver on the small envelope. This is a common tactic among the stingy. They only write my name on the tip, figuring it’ll get washed in with the rest and I won’t know who it came from. Sometimes it serves to confuse me, but when the letter “i” in my name is dotted with whimsical heart, it might as well say Olivia.
In the absence of cash bribes, Olivia’s quirkiness grew less tolerable and on an especially boring day late autumn, I woke with an itch for a fight and decided I wanted her out of my life. As luck would have it, I showed up at work to find the sparrow scheduled with me at seven o’clock. When she arrived I said, “Hello.” I did not say, “Things will be different this time.” But I thought it.
For the first half hour things weren’t different at all, they were exactly as they’d always been. Olivia launched into a diatribe about searching for a new flat nearer to her beloved vegan cupcake shop! I started to pipe in about how some people live in their cars and shower at gas stations to make her feel spoiled and shallow, but quickly lost my nerve. With each new trivial outburst, an opportunity presented itself for me to stick it to Olivia, yet I fumbled every time. By midway through I began to accept our relationship as a manifestation of my own bad karma and resigned myself to our terrible intertwined fate.
Then it happened. After an especially tedious sonnet concerning her colon or her cat’s dialysis or her new parasol or something, Olivia suddenly declared, “Oh, gracious me! I simply can not stand talking about myself!”
“Sure you can” I smarted back, the words—sharp and venomous—leaving my mouth before I’d so much as realized the quiet thought had grown a voice. And for the first time since the day we met, Olivia and I passed our remaining minutes together in silence.
Almost immediately I regretted it. The truth was, I had a legitimate beef with Olivia over forgetting our appointments and leaving me subsidizing her willy-nilly brain farts. But to acknowledge that required admitting that I was working for a little girl and that implied a disparity in our social seats that depressed me too much to consider. So, instead, I chose to execute her over the crime of personality affectations—a misdemeanor, at best. Olivia wasn’t malicious, she was just annoying. How much less complicated life would be were it easier to tell those two things apart.
Olivia never booked with me again after that night. I assume she moved on to a different spa and found another hero, someone more deserving of that title. It’s also entirely reasonable to believe that a hearty gust of wind blew in and carried her away.