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Home: The Toast

It’s perhaps an alarming fact to some that many of my stories begin with “ so, I was between boyfriends/ recently dumped.”  But this should tell you two things. One, that I’ve had my share of boyfriends and/or heartaches. Some might even say I’ve been rather fast and loose, to put it mildly (these pristine beings always put things mildly). But if you took the number of men I’ve had (and I use “had” in the same way I “had a cold,” or “had a dream”), and replaced the word “men” with “hits of heroin” or “atom bombs dropped on major cities,” or even “number of times I didn’t stand by a friend or help a stranger in need,” I agree, that would be excessive.

But as far as human experience and the search for love goes? Particularly when considering the unlikelihood of success in that pursuit? Please.

Second in the things one will have noticed about me: I’m not one to despond for long. Oh, I can pine with the best of them, but at some point pining loses its charms. And it is alluring, to a point: what’s more self-indulgent, expensive, and a better test of your friends’ loyalty than a good long pining-away period? But my innate practicality would always force me earlier than my good sense to embrace eating and sleeping again: I simply couldn’t afford to go shopping for smaller, pining-away outfits, especially after spending all my extra cash on sushi and massages, my longstanding cure for the blues.

I’ve tried other methods of self-consolation. After one breakup in the 1990s, in classic spurned-woman fashion, I got my hair cut dramatically short by the hairstylist who had given the celebrated Linda Evangelista her iconic haircut slightly earlier in the 1990s. I had significantly less professional success with the style than she had (but you already know this because you’ve never heard of Carolita Johnson the top model, have you?), and quickly learned how much money you can end up spending on products for short hair.

I never chopped all my hair off in grief again, partly because my local baker’s wife called me “jeune homme” shortly thereafter, as if I needed the insecurity of a perceived ambiguous gender identity during my “will I never find another man?” phase.  Basic pining was much more practical and always ended when I’d forget to pine, which never took too long to happen.

And there would always be my dog, Carmen. She would tremble and make pleading, strangled noises in her throat when she’d catch me vehemently whispering pathetic esprit de l’escalier comebacks into the bathroom mirror. The pang of seeing my dog suffer from my unstable emotional life would force me to pull myself together. Back in fighting form, I’d throw myself out into the world, which was still as cruel as ever, but reminding myself of the words of one of my favorite Carmina Burana songs: “Quicquid Venus imperat, Labor est suavis.” Looking for love is work. Sweet work. You have to be worthy of it.

I was a regular Lancelot, a female Quixote. I’d pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again to the dismay and eventual lassitude of my friends. This search for love seemed to be my life’s work during my twenties and thirties. It’s not as if I didn’t realize and wonder about the healthiness of it, either: I just didn’t know at the time if nature had intended things to be this way for everyone in their youth or if, having as yet no skills or true vocation to cultivate, this was the only activity I was suited for.

If the latter, I was duty-bound to make the most of what I had to work with. Lazy I was not.

The search for true love and the search for gainful employment seemed, at the time, disconcertingly similar in both method and results. I spent over fifteen years of my life on both, and for a while it looked like I wasn’t very good at either, if the evidence of “being good at it” was having a boyfriend who actually wanted me to be his girlfriend, or a job that paid enough to keep me out of debt.

But this particular between-boyfriends time was different. I was on the cusp of something–not quite there, but almost. It was a moment in my life defined by ambiguity and a blurring of lines as I tried to focus. My long-suffering dog was with my parents while I sublet an apartment in Astor Place, and I was making the most of my singleness, of being in New York, seeing girlfriends (many of whom were also between boyfriends, as it happened), enjoying the rare pleasure of a single woman’s company.

My friend Hattie and I would sit, gloriously and consciously single in our wonderful clothes, crazy shoes and the kind of hairstyles that only the self-employed or unemployed ever wear, at a Vietnamese place on Hester Street, surrounded by wizened senior citizens. We congratulated ourselves–or perhaps only I congratulated ourselves, happy to be back in what I considered then to be “a real city, not like that village, Paris” with every casual sip of our tea, on how authentic, how real we were. Real, though maybe not quite “gritty.” Grit in New York City seems to have gone the way of the public pay phone. It’s still there, but you really have to look for it, and would rather not have to rely on it if at all possible.

By all evidence, this was the accepted custom for those living in New York as part of the so-called creative class, a lifestyle that was gratifying for me to live but probably annoying for people with “real jobs” to witness. These little self-gratifying and fleetingly pleasant delusions of freedom were compensation for our lack of stability, life savings or health care, and we were reluctant to admit that our supposed freedom didn’t always seem worth it.

Women of the world, we compared our exes, travel experiences, masseurs. Hattie loved hers, a Chi Tui Na guy named Mike who worked out of a Chinatown basement. The thing about massages when you’re unhappily single is that they can fill a void. For the lonely, they can be a chaste and legal version of visiting a prostitute: you long to be touched, but who’s going to touch you? Some creep you might not even want to sleep with by the time you get him home from some random party or a long and boring dinner that feels more like a job interview? A guy you have to get rid of when you realize you don’t want to sleep with him after all?

Or perhaps you’ll just sleep with him on the off chance that it might surprise you and be halfway decent or even a pleasure? How often has that happened lately, you ask yourself? What are the chances of it happening again? I’m sure you get the picture, if you haven’t already had the privilege. Isn’t it better to just pay a masseur who at least knows exactly how to loosen your intercostals with essential oils and hot stones, gets that kink out of your neck and sends you home happy, blissfully alone and unhampered by questions of sexual etiquette?

I don’t know if it was psychosomatic or what, but I hadn’t been touched in a long while, and I’d started to develop lower back problems. Hattie’s guy turned out to be the only person in the world who could fix them. He’d break out the Tiger Balm and a hot washcloth and really dig in for an hour, then instruct me to go home and sleep, and I’d wake up the next morning all better.

One day after a terrible night’s sleep on my bad sublet futon, I did something ordinary, something like simply reaching for the coffee press, or stretching a little as I got up from my chair, something so perfectly ordinary that I couldn’t even remember what it was but which resulted in a sensation like a spring popping in my back. Sproiiiiing! I ended up bent over and unable to completely straighten up.

Actually, I could straighten up, but looking in the mirror I could see that I was just “straightened up” enough to look exactly like a caricature of a miserable, tired, middle-aged woman wracked with pain and filled with hopelessness. I had the posture of those awful people whose sad refrain is, “All I do is give, give, give, and all people do is take, take, take.” I couldn’t hold my stomach in, so it was paunched out, and I couldn’t breathe deeply enough because breathing hurt. My shoulders were sloped. My face was pinched. I looked fifty. Sixty. A thousand. I suddenly realized that it must be mostly pain that turns people old. I was only in my thirties, and this felt like a courtesy call from The Grim Reaper, telling me Old Age and Decrepitude were on their way, and here was a free sample. No amount of, “No! It’s too soon!” could make me straighten up.

Alas, the awful truth is that it’ll always be too soon. But now, on the verge of tears at this proposed future of myself as an old drudge instead of the chipper, sexy older woman I’d always aspired to be, I called Mike–there seemed to be a lot of “Mikes” in the basement Chi Tui Na business–tottered my way downstairs to a cab, and delivered myself to his table.

One thing that had surprised me at first about my sessions with Mike was that after he was done with my back, he’d have me turn over so he could do my front. Most masseurs will do the front of your legs and arms, maybe your face. But Mike did my boobs. Not wanting to seem ignorant of Chi Tui Na techniques I may never have heard of, I didn’t object.

Maybe, I speculated as he massaged my breasts, only Americans were squeamish about this sort of thing during a professional massage. Maybe I was getting the authentic version of the Chi Tui Na massage, and there were thousands of Chinese women in China getting their breasts massaged at that very moment. Maybe this was the massage equivalent of whatever was on the untranslated Chinese menus they never gave to tourists in Chinatown restaurants. This massage was like the duck tongues in garlic sauce dish I never dared to order. Perhaps my masseur thought I was worldly and sophisticated enough for this. I had to admit, I’d been around. Maybe it showed.

“There are muscles on my front, too, after all,” I reasoned, “Pectorals. Why wouldn’t a really thorough masseur massage my pectorals?” That made sense to me. And then: “As a woman, my breasts are a very important part of my body. Why shouldn’t they get massaged? Probably all sorts of nerve endings in my breasts are connected to my ovaries and other important organs. They need attention!”

Let me tell you frankly that after the initial surprise, I always left Mike not only feeling very sophisticated, but also with a smile on my lips, and, if not a spring in my step, certainly with happy boobs. Breast massages were a wonderful thing, I decided. What wasn’t to like?

During one of my subsequent spring-roll lunches with Hattie, the subject turned to Mike the masseur, with my careful, prurient help. Hattie was not forthcoming enough within milliseconds of broaching the subject, so I just asked, hey, did Mike massage Hattie’s breasts, too?

It turned out that he did. What’s more, Hattie seemed just as content with it as I was.

I know what you’re thinking. Or do I? Well, to speak just for myself, maybe my relatively loose personal boundaries are all the fault of my brilliant gynecologist in Paris. I won’t tell you her name because she’s not taking any new patients, overwhelmed with legions of grateful, satisfied women as she is. She would impress me with her ability to slip a latex-gloved finger or two into my vagina and say something like, “Ah! Let me guess. Day nine of your cycle.” She was always right!

This lady knew her vaginas, probably even really loved them as one loves an old friend, a quality I respected and admired in her the same way I admire a good electrician or a “dog whisperer.” If anyone could be called a vagina whisperer, that would be Dr. M, as I’ll call her. I felt as privileged to be one of her patients as an experimental filament would have felt to have been in one of Edison’s light bulb prototypes, if a filament could appreciate how lucky it was. It was an honor to be a human female specimen useful to the development of her talents.

At the end of my yearly checkup, Doctor M would perform the best breast exam I’d ever had or would ever have since. At first I didn’t realize it. I simply found myself smiling as I left her office once and wondered, why do I have this big smile on my face? Well, because I felt kind of frisky. My boobs felt…well, my goodness, they felt great! That, I realized, had been a very nice breast exam. Not at all invasive or inappropriate. It held just the right amount of interest, attention, and balance between medical exploration and gentleness. Her touch made me feel healthily validated as a woman, somehow.

Which is all just to say that when Mike did his breast massage, it brought back fond and safe memories of Dr. M.

Then there was the masseuse at the Hammam, at the Mosque de Paris. I think she may also have had something to do with my threshold of comfort when entrusting my body to others. I still remember her bright red cheeks, deep black eyeliner, and hennaed hair.  She had the face of a Moroccan doll, but was massive and full-breasted, with very plump, strong arms, not young, but too strong to look old.  She had stood at the head end of the table I was lying naked on, and poured oil all over me.

With my eyes closed, it took me a moment to realize what was enclosing the top of my head and ears as she leaned over me to slide her palms forcefully along my hips and waist and up to my collar bone. Her breasts and belly had covered my head and muted all sound. For a moment I struggled with claustrophobia. Then I surrendered myself to the sensation, reassured by what was either her professionalism or complete indifference to my initial discomfort. How often does one get to return to the womb, I asked myself? This was as close as I’d ever get. Enjoy.

I guess these experiences were waystations on the slippery slope that led me to become a very regular client of Mike’s.

One fine day, though, Mike surprised me again. After the breast massage, his hands slid a little further down my front. I was pretty relaxed after 45 minutes of massage, still achingly single, and feeling good after my breast massage, so I can’t say I objected because I didn’t. The only thoughts I had as Mike embarked on what I foresaw could only conclude in a “happy ending” were:

“I hope he doesn’t expect me to pay extra for this.”

And then:

“Wow. I am getting a happy ending.”

When it was over, I said, “thank you.” He kissed me on the forehead and stroked my hair. He sat down and told me a little about himself, including where he was from, and I felt terrible when he asked me, in his sweet soft accent, if I wanted to be his girlfriend. He was sincere. I reacted awkwardly, because what did I know about this man? How could I be his girlfriend? I couldn’t see it. I actually tried, dear reader. Lying there on the table, I envisioned it, but each scenario I imagined of us in love ended very badly. It’s amazing how you can watch a terrible relationship unroll in your head in just a moment, the same way you can see the life you’ve already lived pass before your eyes as you, say, go flying through the air on your bicycle after being doored by a taxi passenger.

I never went back.

Actually, I’m lying. I did go back, after my embarrassment had passed and my backaches had become unbearable. But Mike wasn’t there anymore. He’d disappeared. No one knew where he was, or so they said. Hattie hadn’t seen him in ages, had been obliged to use someone else. Over lunch, we wondered, had he gone back to China? A more alarming thought was that maybe he’d tried his happy ending courtship technique with the wrong client.

Or maybe–just maybe?–he’d tried it on the right one?

Carolita Johnson is a cartoonist (The New Yorker magazine) and freelance illustrator, who also writes stuff, and definitely has a book in the works.

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