I begin taking clients at four o’clock when I work the afternoon shift, and it has me leaving home just as school releases at the Junior High across the street. It never fails that one of the preteens who clot up the sidewalk will assault me with their backpack or holler obscenities as I pass by.

They sound like convicts and they look like whores, these kids. Even the Asian teenagers, which is a depth of human decline I never thought I’d see. When a child with an unnatural propensity for math starts acting like an animal, civility has drawn to an end.

I usually manage a restrained tolerance until one of them makes physical contact, and then I tighten my jaw, narrow my eyes, and hope they all end up at trade school someday, living threadbare lives full of repetitive use injuries and never having holidays off.

The reality, however, is that I live in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the nation. Which means I’ll likely end up massaging these kids someday. In fact, I probably already have.

For a number of years I worked at a spa on the Upper East Side, in the zip code of the schools where tuition for pre-K approximates my annual gross income. There are other schools scattered around the city, of course, but those are for the poor people. In this part of the country “public” as it pertains to education, is regarded with as much enthusiasm as when it pertains to restrooms.

During that spell of employment, I found myself performing a great deal of prenatal massage. Fatties, I like to the call them.

Aside from sappiness and a tendency for regarding conception as a sophisticated personal achievement, pregnant women are pleasant horizontal companions. The child is still more of a theory than an actuality, and expecting women are in what is arguably the most joyful experience of their lives. Someday little Sophia or Harrison will orchestrate a hedge fund Ponzi scheme or mastermind a basement meth lab, but in utero, those possibilities feel as baseless as a blizzard in July. Thanks to the magical intersection of living-in-the-now-new-age psychology and hormones, fatties are happy people. I could work on them all day.

With rare exception, almost every expectant mother will nervously ask me about “the spots” I shouldn’t massage that are “dangerous to the baby.” They are referring to pressure points around the knee and foot that—according to Chinese medicine—correlate with female reproductive organs. I’m not sure if this maternity mythology is spread by word-of-mouth or if it’s actually printed in a commonly read book, but they all seem to believe a poorly executed session of reflexology will result in a tiny headstone.

In my anatomy classes the topic barely warranted a serious response. When asked by a student if these disturbing rumors about inadvertently terminating pregnancies were true, our instructor stared off dreamily into space—seeming to conjure up an image of an easier life than the one he’d ultimately arrived at—and declared that if it were possible to perform an abortion that effortlessly, he’d open up an office on Fifth Avenue and while away lazy weekends skiing down his mountain of money.

It was a highly charged sentiment unbecoming of an academic environment, but it got the point across. He’d effectively quieted our concerns on the subject. In the uncomfortable silence that followed his strange admission, the only perceptible sound in the room was the distant echo of a shotgun being loaded somewhere beneath the Mason-Dixon line.

I am not, to be clear, capable of murdering a fetus with my thumbs. Perhaps I could manage it outside of the womb were I so inclined and were the baby to tilt its fragile skull in a way that exposed the pathway of the jugular, but babies are essentially safe inside of a woman’s body. Or safe, at least, from outside dangers. From their mothers, well, that’s a different story.

Michelle—according to the notation on my day’s schedule—was at the start of her second trimester and carrying twins. To look at her, you’d assume a mistake had been made in the booking. Her slender waist appeared entirely uncompromised by impending life and her skin gave off the faint burning stench of a recent visit to the tanning salon. Two packs of Marlboros peeked irreverently from the front pocket of her purse. Michelle was markedly different from the sort of women indigenous to Park Avenue; hers was a kind of attractiveness best appreciated on the other side of the Holland Tunnel.

As I welcomed her into the treatment room I said something to the effect of, “So, I see you’re pregnant!”

“Yeah” she smarted in rapid reply, “And I’d really rather not be, so what can you do to help me here?”

I was startled, speechless.

After entertaining my non-response, Michelle prodded further and—taking a different approach—demanded to know what I’m not supposed to do when working on an expecting client.

“Um, well, it’s mostly a normal massage” I stammered anxiously. “You can’t lie on your stomach. Obviously. And, um, I can’t really, um, use a lot of pressure on your lower back near the, um…”

“What about those trigger points?” she asserted excitedly, “I’ve heard they can do some real damage!”

“You mean the one’s around the knee and foot?” I instinctively replied, “Oh, don’t worry. That’s a common misconception, but I can avoid the area to be safe.”

“Well then,” Michelle began, “I’m going to lie on my stomach and I’ve decided that I need a very deep massage, especially around my lower back. And come to think of it, my knees are killing me and my feet could use a lot of work.”

She pressed her lips together, raised her eyebrows, and slowly nodded her head as if conspiring with me in code. “Have I made myself clear? Are we understanding?”

If I had any sense that she was kidding, I’d have befriended her so fast I could have hosted her baby shower. That’s exactly the sort of wildly inappropriate humor that I consider the gold standard of good company, but Michelle wasn’t joking in the least.

Considering what I’d gleaned of this woman in our admittedly brief interaction, accidental aborting could have been classified as a mercy killing. But I was relatively sure Social Services would eventually alleviate this client from her child rearing responsibilities, so I decided she deserved the misery of birthing those twins and settled on using a medium pressure and steering clear of everything below the thigh. I’d get to enjoy a relatively easy massage and she’d have to endure the unimaginable pain of an episiotomy and subsequent stitches. Everyone wins.

What followed was an entire hour of the old standards Could You Go Deeper and That Wasn’t Deep Enough. She’d break into the occasional Do My Feet Now and Dig Harder Into My Knees. In case I hadn’t understood her complex monosyllabic vocabulary, Michelle amped up the volume, slowed down the pace, and berated me with a show-stopping rendition of Hello? Do You Understand What Deep Means? Have You Ever Heard Of The Knee?

Usually in the face of such criticisms, I call upon the strength enriching properties of anger and massage the client with such epic amounts of depth that they visibly cringe beneath my hands and beg me to lighten up. But Michelle was a special case, and I like to treat my charges as the unique individuals that they are, so with every additional admonishment I ever so slightly eased up on my pressure until I was barely making contact with her skin. People tend to assume that those who do jobs not requiring of intellectual prowess therefore posses none. I went to college and I knew exactly what time it was. She was trying to make me kill her unborn babies and I wasn’t falling for it. Not this time.

Between directing my every movement and theatrically exhaling to communicate her immense displeasure with my work, Michelle complained about finding herself in a family way. This annoying situation threatened to ruin her flawless figure and she wasn’t about to abandon her important career. If the father thought she had any intention of destroying her perfect (and pricey) breasts on those brats he had another thing coming to him. She was about as self-involved and miserable a human being as I’ve ever encountered, and—to reiterate—_I live in New York_.

At the end of our session, Michelle reached into her wallet and threw a wadded bill at me that amounted to a five percent tip. Gratuities speak a language and as brief translation:

  • 20% says That Was Absolutely Wonderful

*15% is a solid Good Job

  • 10% communicates that the giver is European
  • 5% is the means by which you give someone the middle finger with cash. It’s the monetary equivalent of spitting.

It is actually less offensive to leave nothing. Nothing can be interpreted as an oversight. Five percent is an act of calm calculated cruelty.

As she sulked off and slowly disappeared from my sight, I closed my eyes and offered up an earnest prayer for Michelle’s unborn children and the countless members of society who rely upon gratuities to pay their rent; two seemingly disparate groups of people forever connected by one woman’s casual disregard for human life.

Certain clients have a haunting effect, and while I did a decent job of deleting Michelle from my mental hard drive, forgetting the other two heartbeats in the room proved more difficult.

It’s hard to say how a person comes to be so angry and detached. Had I a dossier on her life, it might have revealed something explanatory, something empathetic. But I had none of that. No answers, only questions. Did she truly expect that she’d prance out of a spa unburdened of that particular storyline? Had she honestly imagined magical spots between the femur and the tibia are the final word on sustaining burgeoning life? Was she actually under the impression that massage therapists listen to their clients and care about their needs? It was all so confusing.

I try to believe that her unwelcome offspring found shelter in the odd redemptive power of their mother’s narcissism. Maybe she looked down upon those two swaddled naïf’s and saw something stunningly familiar. Perhaps her breath caught in her throat to realize they’d inherited her eyes and her cheekbones, her tireless scream and her nicotine addiction—maybe Michelle was rendered capable of loving them by mere virtue of how much they reminded her of herself. A flawed love, for sure. But what other kind is there?

Barring that, I can almost guarantee that somewhere in this complicated city a very bad tipper is sprawled across her couch right now. She’s hollering at one of the two identical mistakes she can never quite tell apart to bring mommy her lighter and rub her feet. Deeper, she barks even though those little hands are working just as hard as they can, go deeper.