“You did what?!” Vero screams into the phone. I hear something fall in the background – probably Marc reacting to her shriek. It’s Sunday morning and I have probably interrupted their breakfast.
“I had dinner at Kris’ last night. I ran into him at the supermarket and….”
“Woohoo!” She’s off dancing and I wait. I can hear her telling Marc in the background; it’s two full minutes before she comes back on the line. “Okay, tell me exactly everything.”
I called her to do just that. Not only am I anxious to talk it through with someone, but Vero lives for this stuff. She says she’s over the hill and boring because she’s nearly-married to Marc. It is her goal in life to see his friends happily paired off so she’ll have other women to grow old with.
“I ran into him at the store, and he was buying like a single serving dinner. It was so sad, V. I had cart full of food of course, because I am a huge pig, and it must have made him feel so alone. He invited me over – yes, he asked me – and I said I would cook.” I can hear her grinding her teeth, trying not to interrupt. “So we cooked and ate and it was… he seemed really… I’m not explaining this well. He seemed really grateful, V. Like he thought I was doing him a favor by letting him scrub mushrooms.”
“Did you have a good time?” Her question is less hyper, more introspective than I expect.
“It was nice. He’s really nice. Just really sad.”
I’d thought about it all night. All In our few days of knowing, what I’d seen most from Kris was gratitude. I wore his jersey, I let him pay for groceries, I showed him how to make dinner. It was extremely lopsided – I hadn’t actually done anything. Not anything worth the look in his eyes. I felt like a fraud, claiming credit I didn’t deserve.
“I said I’d set him up with an appointment at my studio – he’s a mess physically too. No wonder you were worried about him.”
“He just needs someone who can take better care of him.”
I shake my head as if she can see it. “I can barely take care of myself.”
“Riley, you’re already helping.”
We hang up and I consider the phone in my hand. Normally I wouldn’t pair a male friend with a male massage therapist, just because some guys thought it was weird. But the Penguins trainers are all guys, so it would be normal for Kris. I tell myself that a male therapist is stronger and Kris really needs someone capable of deep tissue work. But really I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some other girl put her hands all over his nearly-naked body.
“Calm down,” I growl at myself. I really want to do it. But of course I can’t. So I dial Danny, our resident sports specialist, and ask a favor. Sunday is the busiest day at the studio, but Danny only works half-days. He gives me a little shit before agreeing to stay late and take Kris’ appointment this afternoon. With a deep breath, I dial Kris’ phone number.
“’Ello, Riley,” he says in that voice you can feel like silk on your skin.
“Hi Kris,” I croak.
“Thanks again for dinner last night.”
“I had fun. And I made you a massage appointment – can you go today? Our best sports guy had a time open at three o’clock.” Please please please, I think. It makes no sense to get so worked up but I really want to help Kris. And if I can’t do it with my hands at least I can get someone else to.
“That’s perfect. I’ll sleep very well for the game tomorrow. Are you working today?”
I nearly sigh with satisfaction. “Yeah, I have to go in now. But I should be around at 3 when you get there. I’ll try to say hi.” I give him the studio address and phone.
“Thank you, Riley. You’re… really nice to do this.”
“It’s nothing, Kris. I just hope it works.”
I want to tell Riley that she’s really different, that she’s the kind of person everyone wants in their lives. She’s kind and considerate and I wish I were in a place to do something about it. If this massage can help me physically as much as she’s already helped me mentally, I know I’ll have another thing to be grateful for.
At two thirty I head to the studio. It’s early, but I would like to see her between appointments. One other young guy sits in the waiting room and I hope he’s not her next client – he’s good-looking and the thought of her touching him like she was touching me makes my heart race with jealousy. The receptionist is talks in hushed tones into the phone. She tells us it will be just another few minutes before she slips into the hallway.
“WHAT?” I say in a whisper so loud it’s nearly a shout.
“One of Danny’s regulars just called in with an emergency appointment – he threw his back out playing racquetball.” Eileen says. She acts as receptionist on Sundays because they’re so busy, but she’s majority owner of the studio and our boss.
“Tell him Danny is busy!”
“Riley, this is a once-a-week standing appointment. He knows Danny usually finishes at three – this is important. He’s a VIP client.”
I point toward the waiting area where I know Kris is sitting, knit cap pulled down over his hair and hands pressed between his knees. “Do you know who that is? Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins? That’s VIP, Eileen. I was doing him a favor.”
“Well now you can really do it, because I’m giving your three o’clock to Jessica.”
“Give Kris to Jessica.” As I say it I know it’s stupid. Jessica is new and she’s pretty good, but needs experience. And a sports-related session is going to be well beyond her current capability. Oh my God. This is getting away from me really fast.
Eileen gives me her patented no-bullshit look. What follows will not be a question, because if you get it wrong you’re getting fired. “Are you trying to tell me you will have a problem being professional with this client?”
“No!” Again with the whisper-shouting. “No, Eileen. I just… he’s my friend.”
She puts a hand on my arm. “Riley, you’re the best person we have for sports-related after Danny. If he’s VIP I would give him to you anyway. If he’s your friend, help him out.”
I step into the massage room and close the door. It’s ready to go – low lighting, scented candle, earthy music, 700-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets. There’s a table full of oils and lotions and… oh God. I take a deep breath, try to think of Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day and head for the lobby. He looks up the second I walk in.
“Hi Riley,” he stands, wiping his hands on his jeans. “How are you?”
“I’m good, how’s your neck?” Ask someone that and they will always roll their head around to check. He does it now and I can tell he’s stiff by the limited range of motion.
“Okay,” he lies.
I glance out the window to break the gaze of his liquid dark eyes. His car is there, with its seat warmers and supple leather…. “Well the therapist you were supposed to see got called out on emergency, so you’re with me today.”
Those bottomless brown eyes go slightly wide and my heart kicks like a horse. His lips part like words have spring to mind, then he swallows them. “Is it okay?” His voice is soft, like he knows I don’t have a say in the matter.
“Yes. And I don’t even have to ask what’s wrong.” I give him a single nod, hoping it seems resolute and lead him down the hall. The room is just as enticing as I left it, one red lampshade away from being a boudoir. I’ll never be able to look at it the same way again. “You’ve done this before, right?”
He has and so I show him where to hang his clothes on the back of the door. In the dim light his eyes are black. His hair and scruffy bear seem dyed with ink and I want to touch them to see if it runs. We’re close together in the small room and I think of hugging him, of fitting against his body like a key in a lock.
“There’s a blanket on the shelf if you’re cold, then just lay on your stomach and I’ll be back in a few minutes.” I nearly slam the door in my hurry to get outside.
The string of French expletives that runs through my head would make Max proud. I stare at the soft-looking sheets and inhale the scent of lavender. I’m either in or I’m out… and I’m already in the room. Merde. I kick off my shoes and start to undress. I wished for this – well not this specifically, because I do not have a death wish. But I want her hands on me, her fingers to work the same magic I felt last night when she massaged my neck. At least I wore nice shorts. Now if I can concentrate on not ruining them when she touches my skin… knock knock.
Riley pokes her head around the door before coming in. “All set?”
I’m on the table with my face turned toward her. She wears yoga pants and a t-shirt that don’t do a lot to keep my heart rate in check. So instead I look at her shy smile, relieved that she’s uncomfortable too.
“You sure this is okay?” I ask again.
She puts a hand on my back, her skin burning hot through the sheet. “Don’t worry about it.”
I put my face into the cradle and close my eyes. I can hear her moving around, then the plastic noise of the plunger being pressed on the oil bottle and her rubbing it between her hands. Despite the soft cushioned table and warm sheets trying to make me drowsy, my pulse is racing. Again Riley presses her hand over the sheet, then draws it down to expose my back. She stands at the top of my head, leans forward and runs both hands down the sides of my spine.
I groan involuntarily. Her touch is firm and strong, the oil heating with the friction of her skin on mine. The pressure releases pain like a wave, strongest at my neck and shoulders, less across my ribs. As she moves over my lower back, I feel tension again.
“Tell me if I press too hard,” she says. “And it’s okay if you want to fall asleep.”
I mumble a response as every molecule in my body is trained on the feel of her fingers. She kneads out my upper back, testing for tender. There are more than a few. Each one earns a little exploratory work then she moves on like she’s mapping me. When she has the scene in mind, she sets about releasing tension with a variety of strokes. It feels dizzying – stabs of pain mixed with swirls of pleasure. I can already tell she’s very, very good at this. She grasps my bicep and lifts, activating my shoulder blade so she can work underneath it. I hiss as she hits a spot.
Riley holds her hand flat to the place like a compress. “Okay?” Her voice is soft – everything is soft: the sheets, the music, her skin. I nod against the headrest. She moves down my back, using her forearms across my ribs and her fingers at my spine. The sheet is warm over my back as she replaces it before moving on to my leg.
I take a deep breath, like I’m preparing us both for the fact that she’ll be touching my thighs and working right up against my shorts. I pray that I can keep it together and meditate on the healing energy of her touch. It’s very erotic and hard to ignore. Riley tucks the sheet right up under the edge of my shorts, her fingernails brushing the skin of my backside. She works my foot and ankle, finds the ticklish spot behind my knee and pushes the heels of her hands hard up my outer thigh. It feels so good.
“God you’re strong,” she whispers, almost laughing.
“You too,” I say. I’m not the biggest guy but I am very well-muscled. Riley is really getting a lot out of me. She continues to find problems I didn’t even know I had. Only once, as her fingers slip over the inside of my thigh, does my brain ring the fire alarm. Otherwise I am remarkably calm and collected. She starts on the other leg, hitting the ticklish spot on purpose and giggling softly. Then she sets herself to work.
I will never be able to give another massage. Kris is pretty much ruining my professional life, laid out on this table like a pile of clay begging to be molded and folded into perfection. His skin is baby soft, his muscles hard and pronounced and the injuries numerous. Bruises, knots, pulls… his body is a war zone. No wonder he’s had such a bad time; the body focuses on physical healing before mental. Maybe I can help speed the process.
I cover his leg, pushing away thoughts of what will happen when he rolls over so I can massage the front. His arm is wrapped in a huge tattoo. As I stroke at the incredibly defined tricep and bicep muscles, I admire the work. His forearms are rock solid, but he moans softly as I press my fingers into the soft underside. That’s a favorite of office workers with mild carpal tunnel syndrome.
“That feels amazing,” he says quietly. I usually only do it twice, but I give Kris a few extra passes.
He is impossibly beautiful. He also has a lot of legitimate musculature issues that fascinate me – a normal person would cry until they were hospitalized only over a few of these aches. Kris has a bucketful and still trains daily. I know hockey players are tough but this is a whole new world. I start on his other arm.
“Someday, can I meet one of your trainers? I’d love to find out how they handle all these injuries.”
“No. You are better. Don’t learn from them.”
I laugh and squeeze down on that tendon that makes him moan again. My favorite massage to receive is a hand massage, so I try it out on Kris’ big paws. As I hook my pinkies around his fingers and spread his palm wide, I get a little woozy at the thought of that hand touching me. He’s putty by this point.
“If I lift the blanket up this way, can you roll over?”
It’s a real question. I’m pretty hot-and-bothered; I wouldn’t want to get into a car accident on the way home because I’m definitely not wearing clean underwear. I don’t know if Kris is doing any better. But he consents and I resist the urge to accidentally drop the sheet and look at him in his boxer briefs. He shimmies down the table. I lift his head to detach the headrest, running my hand through his hair. It’s as soft and sexy as advertised. He smiles, eyes closed.
“I’ve wanted to do that since I met you,” I admit, smiling at myself.
I massage the front of his biceps – one arm then the other. My work on his upper thighs might leave something to be desired, but I’m genuinely nervous. I swear each ridge of my fingerprints drags slowly across his skin for maximum friction. I have never seen quadriceps like his and I need my elbows and forearms to get any kind of purchase. When I finish his other leg, I reward myself with his biceps and shoulders; they are safer territory but no less mind-scrambling. Thank God I know him, I think, or I’d have to find a new career after this. If a regular client ever got to me like this I would make him my last. And that’s why you don’t work on guys you know.
Riley uses her knuckles along my deltoids and I bite my lip to keep from crying out. They are tight like a sail full of wind, solid and immobile. She tries to find a way in, eventually nicking a weak spot and working her way beneath the strained muscle. The pain burns hot then floods with warm relaxation. It won’t last forever but she’s granting me a reprieve. She lifts my head, turns it to one side and rubs her thumbs along the exposed tendons. Before going to the other side, she circles my earlobes between her fingers.
“Do you want me to do your chest? I don’t always, but you might find it helpful.”
I do want her to. I’ve had a chest massage before, usually by a trainer when I’ve strained a pectoral or a rib. This is somewhere between maintenance and bliss and the thought of her running her hands over my chest is probably too much to contemplate unless I want my feelings to become very obvious. I wonder if that’s what she’s worried about.
Her hands still knead at my neck. “When someone’s had a rough time emotionally, it can affect the body physically. Especially the chest. I noticed that you round your shoulders a little – could be your pecs pulling inward.”
It is that and more. It’s my body trying to curl into a ball and protect itself. It’s my stomach guarding against a punch. “Okay,” I say.
She leans over me, the blades of her hands going together down toward my sternum. Working over my chest, she targets the area just inside my shoulders at the top of my chest. As soon as she touches it I realize how tender I am. I’ve been mistreating those muscles for weeks and they are not happy. Her even breathing soothes me even as she lights up trails of sensation across my body.
“Ugh,” I breathe out as she hits a sore spot that runs down under my arm. Instead of stopping she does it again, and again until I no longer feel the little trail of fire. Her fingers drag across my chest and find the same pain on the other side. Eventually she returns to my neck. My chest is sore, but in a new way.
There’s already less tension in my neck, even I can feel it. Her hands get more muscle, her strokes get more depth. Already I know I’m in for the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages. Riley massages my scalp and runs her hands through my long hair a few times. I wonder if they teach that in school. When she’s finished, she puts her hands on my shoulders and looks down at me.
“That was amazing.” I want to tell her I’m glad the other person was called away, but can’t figure out how to make it sound okay.
“I’ll be outside.”
I’m a little weak in the knees when I try to stand. I want to cry, to sleep, to wrap myself around her and see if she has any of that healing energy leftover that I could absorb.
The waiting room is empty. I could really use a seat but he should be out in a minute. When he’s gone I can pass out on the floor. I flex my hands, stretching the battered muscles that just got the workout of their life.
His winter coat is army green with his knit cap sticking out of one cargo pocket. Now that I know the silky feel of his hair, I almost wish he were wearing it instead. I can barely take looking at his hair without being able to touch.
“Are you okay?” He catches me wiggling the feeling back into my fingers.
“Yeah. I’m not used to working on someone so strong,” I say. He takes my hand in his and puts his thumbs into the palm the way I did inside. I suck in a breath – the pain is sudden but passes after an instant. Kris rubs the base of each finger in a small circle.
“You’re a quick learner,” I tell him.
“Thank you,” he says in a low voice. We are alone but massage always leaves people feeling a little quiet. “For this. I feel better already.” He switches to my other hand, holding it in his giant one.
“Should get you to the game tomorrow at least.”
He looks up from my palm. “You’re still coming, right?”
“Yup. Still have your sweater.”
His eyes are soft and dark lashes fringe a sleepy puppy look. Already I can see the tiny hint of sadness coming with it, creeping in on the edge of fatigue. Any help I provide won’t last that long. Apparently I have no instinct for self-preservation because I draw Kris into a hug.
His body is dead weight, but the limp kind that comes with relaxation. More than anything he could say, the feel of him says I have done good work today. Across my back his arms fall together and I think he could sleep right here, standing up. We smell of the same oil, the scent blurring the line between where he ends and I begin.
“Go sleep. See you tomorrow,” I say into his ear. Then I kiss his scruffy cheek. As he pulls away, Kris slowly brushes his lips against my smooth skin.
“Thank you, Riley.”
“Night Kris.” I wave as he walks away.
3 years ago