She comes downstairs with her two Chihuahuas and a bottle of massage oil. I supply the weed. I light up the weed. We watch vulgar comedy like Sarah Silverman. At some point, Heather delivers the order. “Massage.” Without hesitating, I unscrew the oil. Heather swivels her back towards me. Up goes the shirt. I begin my work.
David gets complicated with his upstairs neighbor. It involves massages.
“Ahhh,” she goes. “Ahhhhhhhh.”
Nothing further transpires between us. I swear to myself that I’ll withhold, but then when the time comes, without thinking, I pour the oil and put my hands on Heather’s back. I know every inch of it. Like the rest of her, it’s all muscle, sinew, and bone. Her spine protrudes and curves as it works its way down, as though she were some kind of swamp reptile.
It started unremarkably enough, and by unremarkable, I mean unremarkable for a building in the Lower East Side inhabited by eccentric loners who have been living together for close to 15 years.
That was our secret code. For a few years I had demurred because, well, I had just completed two surgeries and with it those lingering gas problems, so I was paranoid. And then Clarissa came along, so smotting with another woman was out of the question, and then Clarissa disappeared, but I still had the gas. Then I suddenly didn’t care any more.
In my mind’s background noise, I guess I’d wanted to fuck her for, oh, about twelve-and-a-half years, ever since she moved into the building – above me, actually – with her optimism, entrepreneurial spirit, cute ass, blonde hair, and her 25-year-old face. Now she was 37 and had withered to a stick, suffered from various ailments, including alopecia (she wore hats all the time now), an overactive thyroid, and vertigo. She went from loud 2am sex that included acrobatics, to the quiescency of a saint. All I heard was occasional frustrated screaming at the Chihuahuas when they were bad. We had nothing to stop us from poking smot together, because we had no one else to do it with.
Here’s the thing: if she wanted me to grow attached to her, to the husk of a woman she’d become, all stringy limbs and chapped hands, then she is an evil genius. Months of sitting on a couch together does something strange to the minds of people. Expectation. Familiarity. Need. Our comedy, pot, and Chihuahua nights were uneventful in the beginning; you don’t just start massaging your neighbor’s back. Heather’s a quiet girl, actually, despite her history as a dominatrix and the yelling at the dogs. We sometimes laughed softly at the TV, the way old couples do it, more to ourselves than to each other. She stayed long enough and then would leave, just as the pot was peaking and the atmosphere grew comfortable. The smaller of the Chihuahuas went inside her bag, and her cell phone into her bra, a firm shelf on her tiny torso.
At first she came downstairs every so often, which then turned into once a week, which became every few days. We Netflixed through the first two seasons of Parks and Recreation, downloads of all of Sarah Silverman, weekly installments of The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad. Her Chihuahuas had gone from hating me to the female obsessively vying for my attention, and the boy nuzzling his nose in my palm.
But the comedy usually disappointed us.
“This isn’t funny,” she’d say.
“It’s not, right?”
“It’s pretty bad. It’s too much like The Office.”
“What makes them even think it’s remotely funny? Why do they try so hard to be ironic? Ironic isn’t funny, it’s just ironic.”
“If they played it straight it would be funny.”
“That’s exactly right. More smot?
A couple of times I noticed she would rub one of her shoulders, kneading it with her fingers. Heather also suffered from fibromyalgia and sciatica. They acted up now then. On a lark one night, I reached over and touched the curve of her neck.
“Is it tight?”
This didn’t elicit outrage. Instead, she swung around.
“Yes!” she cried. “Back rub.”
So I started to give her back rubs.
“Ahhh,” she’d moan. “Ahhh, right there.”
Was it strange? Sure. But like I said, neither of us had anything else to do. My main chore was trying to exorcise Clarissa from life and memory. Writing her letters that went unanswered wasn’t pushing me forward.
I was getting good at back rubs, too. After the novelty wore off, the only way to keep interested was to get interested in the technique of it. I learned where her tough spots were and how to thumb them out.
At first I never pulled her shirt up to get to her skin. Then I pulled her shirt up. A few weeks later I undid her bra for better access to her back, of which I had become mysteriously drawn to, to its flat-boned shoulder blades, the narrow channels of muscles, and the spine of protruding knuckles. We graduated to massage oil after a couple of months. Also, I started doing her legs. She swung them over my lap and rolled up her sweatpants.
My colleagues thought I was nuts.
“You realize how sketchy this is? What a sketchball this makes you?” This came from the maternal Suzie, all of 26, whose boyfriend was an FBI agent. Suzie had once said she adored me.
“It wasn’t my idea,” I defended. “Let me ask any of the men here. Would you say no?”
Tim sprung from his chair. “Hells no.”
“See? What am I supposed to do?”
“He’s got no choice,” said Tim.
I turned to Suzie. “You want a massage?”
Once – maybe twice – my fingers strayed below the waistband of Heather’s sweatpants.
“Exit only,” she warned.
Finally, there was the time I came home from a date a bit drunk. I had kissed the girl. I felt frisky. Heather must have heard me stomping up the stairs.
“Smot?” she texted.
She came down. We found something to watch. Out came the pot. Out came the massage oil. I pulled her shirt up to her neck. There was the bra. A black one, not the usual sports bra that I couldn’t take off. Her back, then, browned from a recent trip to South America. After a few minutes of the normal routine, I reached around to her front.
“Hey,” she said, and although she said it with alarm, neither of us moved away from each other.
“Dude,” I said, “throw me a bone here.”
“I bring you treats.”
That’s right – it was true. She’d bring me pieces of chocolate or a cookie. Sometimes she’d leave them outside my door.
“But I’m not one of your puppies.”
“Oh. Well, okay.”
Her tits were the size of walnuts and as hard. Years ago, she had told me they were implants. Who gets them done that small? I wondered. She told me that as a tiny and athletic girl she had none at all. She wanted something, but not too much. She had promised me in an email a few days later that one day she might let me poke them. I had waited a long time for this, all the way to middle age.
“Well, I went to the gym today,” she said, rationalizing, “so I’m a little sore there.”
“Okay, we’ll unsore them.” It was the best I could come up with.
“You need to look?”
“Men, we’re visual.”
By now, of course, I felt bound to her, even though I found her repulsive. Even though I didn’t understand her, I did understand her wounded body.
The evening went on in the usual manner, except for that one, newly introduced element. We had a choice to take it further, but we couldn’t. We wound it back down. The dogs were growing restless. There was nothing left to watch.
“Saturday?” she asked, gathering her cell phone and Chihuahuas.
“Yes, that works. Saturday’s good,” I said.