Bagel Land

Gary must have weighed over 400 pounds when he climbed onto my massage table, immediately propping his upper body on his arms, because he was unable to fully lie down. I lifted the sheet, as he cheerfully informed me, “I’m divorced.A dab of lavender under my nose — a necessity with the super-sized, prone to chafing, skin infections, and poor hygiene. “I initiated the breakup: I just wanted something more.It’s a red flag for a massage therapist when the first moments aren’t about sore muscles, but relationship status, as if the massage is a date.

He informed me he was a car salesman in town for a convention. His family made their money in Tampax, before the Mob took over. They got out of that racket, and went into cars, because the female sanitation business became too dangerous. “A need that is frequent and persistent and widespread is especially lucrative,” he explained. And then back to his divorce. I remembered my dread purchasing cars. Car salesmen are expert manipulators.

“I wasn’t happy with my ex-wife,Gary explained. “The cane is temporary. I’m scheduled for knee surgery next month. I love swimming, and get weekly massages back home.”

But then, his monologue ended, and our conversation began, with the classic opener, “Where are you originally from?”

His knees felt warm — like moderate chronic inflammation.

Pittsburgh,” I replied.

“Me, too!” he crowed.

Both Jewish, his relatives lived in the same condo as my mother and stepfather. Gary assumed we’d know the same people. But he was fifteen years older.

It turned out that all we really had in common was memory of Bagel Land — land of wonderful, round, soft, pliable, boiled, and then baked bagels. I remembered the heavy upper arms of the ladies with the rounded shoulders massaging, kneading, and shaping the dough — soon to be warm, delicious bagels. My family bought thirty dozen at a time.

As I attempted deep tissue massage, leaning my elbows into his back, Gary instructed, “Have dinner with me?”

Still leaning, I replied, “Sorry, I don’t go out with clients.”

“Come on! We’re from the same place!”

“I’ve enjoyed our conversation,” I said.

“We know each other! Call your mom and ask if she knows my aunt. It’s just dinner.”

Gary was disabled by obesity, but still a confident man. He persevered. I reluctantly succumbed. A therapist of any kind should never date a client, because a client will always be your client, and a therapist will always be in a caregiving role. But Gary had clearly stated, “It’s just dinner.” We were practically family friends. I didn’t want to seem judgmental. I knew that If Gary had been an average sized man I’d have declined. I forgot that I knew that car salesmen are jerks.

“Call your mother; ask her if she knows my aunt,” Gary said, as we said good-bye. He had my card. “I’ll call you. We’ll have dinner. It’s not a big deal. Besides, we are going to know each other a long time.”

I was relieved to get to my car, where my emotional support dog, Tucker, waited for me. At home, I called my mother, and asked, “Do you know this man’s aunt?”

“Yes,” Mom said, her voice rising in pitch. “She’s a horrible person.”

Our relatives bickered at condo meetings back in Pittsburgh, nearly three thousand miles away from Seattle. It was like putting a quarter in a machine. Helplessly, I put my mother on speakerphone, folding flannel sheets while I listened to a story of a feud I had heard before.

Still folding and half-listening, when Gary texted, We are going to know each other a long time. I headed for the bathroom, phone on mute. I don’t like confrontation, even in a text. I should have texted Gary back that I couldn’t meet him for dinner. I suspected argumentativeness was characteristic of his family line. Stress-related IBS was characteristic of mine. And being conflict averse.

Better to get this over with, and solve the problem of finding a restaurant that could accommodate Gary, and also Tucker. After several calls, I had a reservation for dinner for two people, and one dog, a block and a half from his hotel.

Gary limped in on his cane. The taxi dropped him off, but the distance from the curb made him perspire.

“I wish you’d picked me up,” he complained.

“I’m sorry my car is small.”

Arriving at the booth, Gary asked, “Does the table move?”

Congratulating myself on my foresight, I sat first, pulling the table close to me, like a child in a high chair. We each ordered a cocktail. He had steak; I had cod. Eating carefully, Gary was surprisingly dainty in his manners, a giant handling a child’s tea set.

Talking, he interrupted himself: “You are so easy to talk to.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

As the server passed, Gary requested a straw, instead of a toothpick, to pick his teeth, saying, “The food is good, but the company is better.”

“I’m glad our paths crossed,” I fibbed.

“When are you planning on visiting Pittsburgh?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Rosh Hashanah?” Gary persisted.

“I really don’t know.”

“Yom Kippur?”

“My schedule is unpredictable.”

“Passover?”

“Maybe.”

During dessert, Gary said, “Come back to my room with me?”

Stunned, I said, “I have an early morning appointment.”

“Come on.” Angrily: “Don’t be ridiculous.”

I didn’t say anything, and reached to touch Tucker in his carrier on the seat next to me, chewing his bone.

“You’re being ridiculous,” his lower lip sticking out.

And then, a bargaining chip, “Your mother knows my aunt, right?”

Bickering Northeastern relatives did not mean I was contractually obligated to sexually service a man. And, if a need is frequent, persistent, and widespread means it should be lucrative — Gary had said so himself about the origin of the family fortune. Insulted to be treated like a sex worker, and a low-priced one ($24 entree), I still didn’t say my mother said his aunt was a horrible person.

Gary said, “I’m sure your clients ask you to take care of them all the time, anyway. You must be used to it. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, I’m sure. I was just taking you to dinner to make it nicer for you, and let you save face, because your mother knows my aunt.”

I excused myself for the bathroom. Although a rare hazard of my occupation is to encounter inappropriate behavior from male clients, Gary took things to another level — furious, logical, negotiating, and badgering, as if on the car lot.

“Just walk back to the hotel, come up to my room, and use my bathroom.”

“I have a favorite stall here,” I lied.

“You are ridiculous. It’s a short story. My penis is very small. It won’t take long.”

I didn’t pour my glass of water on him, or flee, or wonder what sex act he could possibly imagine, or how size correlated to stamina. Instead, I made my way to the bathroom. Trancelike, I returned to the table, and proceeded to escort Gary back to his hotel.

A verbal assault can be as shocking as a physical one. Perhaps it is my turtle-like gift to shut down and protect myself when under siege. I try to exit an awful situation gracefully while maintaining my dignity, no matter how horrible the other person is being. I can always make sense of the situation later.

Tucker was now on his leash, all four paws on the ground, cheerful, imperturbable, trotting alongside me. Gary continued to call me ridiculous, a bully bullying, spitting as he talked. Some people have a hole inside them — just like a bagel — that makes them fierce and predatory and cruel, compelled to demean others.

I left him on a bench trying to catch his breath, sweat dripping down his face, glaring at me disdainfully. I was trying to be nice by giving an obese, disabled, lonely man some company, and he verbally assaulted and bullied me. I stood up straight as I walked down the street with Tucker.

There is a bread different than the round, soft, boiled, innocent bagel of our youth — the panis, which is a word for bread, and also for anything loaf-shaped, and also the medical term for the pendulous, heavy abdominal overhang of fat on the morbidly obese. Despite myself, I reluctantly imagined a rhythmic hand over hand cradling and kneading of the loaf-shaped lower belly, a persistent, dedicated commitment to massaging one thing into another — into something it was not — transforming the belly into bread, or panis into penis, or a massage into a date, or something even worse.

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