30-Minute Backrub in Chinatown by David Galef
The waist-high table is narrow as a cot in a child’s room, your arms dangling on either side, head cushioned in a soft hole fringed by a paper towel like a doily over a well. After smoothing down, the masseuse gets to work: thumbs down, fingers splayed, fists dug in, elbows tracing hard but sinuous lines down the grateful, vulnerable spine, pressing into the trapezius where once we could fly, digging into the small of the back that bears the weight of our days. The back is a field and the hands are a plow. The back is a sea and the fingers form a prow cresting the waves of the latissimus dorsi, separating muscle from bone, fusing pleasure and pain. The masseuse plies the body. The sculptor kneads the humble clay. The butcher works over the meat. The doctor addresses the dissection table. The pastry cook wields her rolling pin. In the beginning was the flesh, not like Christ on the cross or the ointment on the feet but an earlier miracle, turning stiffness into liquid, breaking down to make whole again. Meanwhile the mind wanders to an asphodel field on another planet, where green stars illuminate soft instrumental music, gliding into the chamber, settling like gauze. The body is a series of trigger points and trap doors opening into the abyss, and life a parade of entrances and exits, pushes and pulls, until finally time’s up. With a little cup of water and the settling of the bill, you grope your way out.
David Galef is a shameless eclectic with over a dozen books in two dozen directions, including the novels Flesh and How to Cope with Suburban Stress (a Book Sense choice, listed by Kirkus as one of the Best 30 Books of 2006); the short-story collections Laugh Track and My Date with Neanderthal Woman (winner of Dzanc Books’ Short Story Collection Award); and the co-edited anthology of fiction 20 over 40. His latest volume is Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, from Columbia University Press. He is a professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University.