They were going to a couples massage. It was the first for both of them. They were newlyweds, and Amanda thought that this was just what she and Sean needed. They had trouble with “the spark” sometimes. She had made the decision to be more proactive. She bought the coupon for the massage online.
They’d had a small church wedding and banquet hall reception. The wedding had very little in common with the one Amanda had planned in her head, which included more handmade things, things in Mason jars, elaborate structures of paper flowers, strings of floral-printed bunting. At the height of her do-it-yourself insanity, she entertained the idea of creating small terrariums of moss and succulents for centerpieces. Sean reined her in.
“This is out of control,” he said, gesturing around their apartment, where Amanda had spread piles and piles of old lace doilies in an attempt to decoupage them into hanging light fixtures. “You need to stop.” She sat on the floor with a massive bottle of glue. He looked down, arms crossed.
Sean was a practical, serious person. He worked in IT. Amanda was not a practical, serious person. She did not work in IT. She was a kindergarten teacher. She liked to fingerpaint. She liked cutting shapes out of construction paper. She was particularly suited to jobs with small children. She was able to anticipate what would soothe or excite them, what would make them laugh, what would bore them. They seemed to like her because of this—and her cartoonish presence: a mass of red hair, clothes in bright colors and patterns, a loud, warm laugh, a tendency toward physical comedy. They called her Miss Amanda and drew pictures of her in crayon, a large head with scribbles of orange shooting out in every direction supported by a tiny stick body.
When it came to her relationship with Sean, she liked to think of their differences in a positive light. “You’re my straight man,” Amanda said when they first became a couple. “The Abbot to my Costello. The Ethel to my Lucy. The Barney Rubble to my Fred Flintstone.”
“Great,” he said. “But none of those people slept with each other.”
“As far as we know.” She winked.
“You know what I mean. Why can’t I be the Bogart to your Bacall?”
“We’re partners, is what I mean,” she said.
* * *
When they arrived at the couples massage, Amanda could not help but feel slightly deflated. It was clear this would not be like the fancy spa massages she had seen in movies and on television. For one, Amanda and Sean were not at a spa. They were in a parking lot. The massage parlor was tucked in a plaza between a car rental agency and a tuxedo shop.
When they walked inside, Amanda could not help but wonder: Where was the refreshing cucumber water? The fragrant essential oils? The healthy-looking, robust masseuses? The fluffy towels and bathrobes? The walls were a soothing shade of blue, at least. There was a water cooler and a bowl of chocolate-covered mints.
“This is going to be great,” Amanda said. She turned toward Sean. “Aren’t you excited?”
“Of course.” Sean smiled and patted her hand lightly.
They filled out clipboards with their medical history and were led into a room by two female masseuses who told them to “strip to their level of comfort” and shut the door. Inside the room, the lighting was perfectly dim—this was one thing the massage parlor got right. A speaker played ocean sounds, low and pleasant and soothing. There were massage tables on either side of the room. Sean sat on one and began taking off his shoes.
“What’s your level of comfort?” Amanda asked Sean.
“Don’t be a prude,” he said.
They both undressed completely and lay under the sheets.
“Oh boy!” Amanda said. “Ready to relax?”
The masseuses returned and paired off. Amanda’s was thin and short with stringy hair and a tired face. Sean’s masseuse was the younger, more attractive of the two, curvy with thick chestnut hair pulled back in a headband.
Amanda’s masseuse whispered in her ear. She said, “Time to relax, baby girl.”
Amanda closed her eyes and it was not long before she eased into a state of semi-consciousness. She was reminded of the feeling right before falling asleep or right after waking, when the physical world seemed malleable, when it was easy to forget where she was.
The masseuse started with her face: gentle circles around her eyes, nose, ears, temples, the pressure of her fingertips light. She wondered if both masseuses tried to synchronize their processes, if they practiced finishing together. She assumed that what was happening to her was happening to Sean at approximately the same time. She couldn’t be sure, but it felt good to keep her eyes closed. She focused on the sounds in the room: the masseuse working her muscles, her own breathing, the recording of the waves.
She thought of family vacations at her grandmother’s beach cottage. Growing up they had gone every July, until Amanda was in high school and her grandmother sold the property. Amanda had spent hours wandering the bit of private coast alone, through the beach grass and sea lavender; at low tide she crouched in the shallow pools, where the water became warm, and examined hermit crabs and tiny black fish, shells and barnacles lit up by the glare of the sun.
Amanda adjusted herself on the massage table. The masseuse was pulling on her arms, gently tugging them loose from their sockets. It felt incredible.
July was coming soon, and it always depressed her. No July would ever be as good as the ones she spent at the cottage. She thought about suggesting to Sean that they rent a cottage this summer and do the long drive to the ocean. But she knew they wouldn’t. The wedding and honeymoon had been only a month before.
“Sweetie, I’m going to need you to turn over now,” Amanda’s masseuse said.
Amanda maneuvered herself so that she was on her stomach, her face pressed comfortably into the circular hole in the massage table. A few moments later she heard rustling and assumed Sean was flipping over as well. But the rustling went on longer than she expected. Sean’s masseuse seemed to be making much more noise than hers. Amanda heard shuffling, drawers opening, swishes of material, Sean shifting under the sheet, whispered voices.
Amanda breathed deeply. Her masseuse was working her shoulders and neck now, but Amanda found herself distracted. She was getting carried away imagining Sean’s massage: him, naked on the table, slick with sweat and oil, the masseuse’s hands gliding smoothly over his body, down his shoulders and chest, around the curves of his hips. The hands moving lower, under the sheet, to his thighs, his inner thighs, kneading him, moving slowly closer to the center, and then, grabbing and stroking him.
In Amanda’s haze it began to seem possible: that a slip of the hand could escalate. That Sean, once aroused, could allow it to go on—could derive a kind of perverted pleasure from the fact that Amanda was right next to him, where she could, at any moment, open her eyes and lift her head from the head-shaped hole in the massage table.
She trusted Sean, but at the same time, could she ever really know him? She remembered a quote about every man being an island. Didn’t someone say that? Amanda liked to think that getting married meant the islands merged, that the two islands became one.
But she’d had it all wrong, she realized: the saying was that NO man was an island. If that were so, then why did Sean still seem shipwrecked and unreachable? She was doomed to examine the tide pools alone.
“Okay,” Amanda’s masseuse whispered. “We’re all finished, baby girl. You might feel a little dizzy when you get up, so be careful. You might need to use the bathroom. It’s right outside.”
Amanda was always afraid of getting dizzy. It was one of her least favorite feelings, being dizzy on the verge of passing out. She didn’t do anything that might make her feel that way. She avoided amusement park rides. She tried to stay hydrated. She took the masseuse’s urging very seriously. She got up gradually. She lifted her body inch by inch, painstakingly, carefully, until she was sitting upright, and only then did she open her eyes.
* * *
When they got back to their apartment, they ignored the registry gifts still in boxes. The only thing they had taken out was the juicer. They were both very excited about the juicer. They’d juiced everything. At first Amanda kept the pulp in a Tupperware in the fridge—“you can make muffins and breads with this stuff!”—but after a week the pulp had become discolored and unappetizing.
Amanda opened the refrigerator and reached for a bottle of water. One of her favorite student drawings was stuck to the front of the door with a magnet, her in a wedding dress. It was the opposite of all the other pictures her students had drawn of her: her head was small while her dress took up almost the entire page, poofing out like a massive cloud.
She took a drink. “My masseuse kept calling me baby girl,” Amanda said. “What’s that all about? Did yours call you baby boy?”
“She called me ‘Mr. Thompson.’”
“Kinky,” Amanda said.
Sean raised an eyebrow. He reached for Amanda’s waist and pulled her to him. She pulled away. “I’m sweaty,” she said. “I need a shower.”
Amanda knew then that the couples massage had done the opposite of what she was hoping it would do. She was hoping it would work like a switch. That, after, she would feel Sean’s touch like electricity or chemistry or animal attraction or cosmic connection, or whatever she was supposed to feel, but instead she could not erase the idea of the younger masseuse from her head, of what she imagined could have happened.
She had hoped that the honeymoon would have been the turning point, but it had not, even though they had rented a romantic, secluded cabin in the woods, by a lake. They had had sex, but it was not marathon sex, it was not let’s-never-leave-the-bedroom sex, let’s-never-put-clothes-on-again sex. They mostly did other things. They made brunch. They swam in the lake. “Look, a deer,” Amanda said when she saw a deer. And that was that.
“You know,” she said, “I thought for a second it sounded like your masseuse was giving you a hand job.”
He dropped his hands from her waist. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“I know. I don’t know why I thought that.”
It started to get dark outside, but neither of them moved to turn on the lights. Amanda could make out the shapes of the boxes they still hadn’t opened, of blenders and vacuums and espresso machines.
“It’s funny,” Sean said.
“It’s not funny, I guess. I guess it makes sense.”
“Tell me what you’re talking about.”
“This massage was supposed to be an intimate thing. And you spent the whole time creating a fantasy of me cheating on you.”
“A fantasy?” She didn’t look at him. Just at the boxes.
“You’re not attracted to me,” he said.
They stood together just like that with it hanging between them for a long time. Amanda felt tears in her eyes. She thought of all the things she wanted to tell Sean, about everything she had thought during the couples massage, how she felt like they were distant, always distant, always separate, somehow. Instead, all she said was, “That’s not true.”
But he was already gone, disappeared down the hallway, and all she heard was the bedroom door shutting behind him.
Jillian Jackson is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction at Boston University and the recipient of a St. Botolph Club Foundation’s Emerging Artist Grant. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and others. Her story “A Leo, Like Jackie O” was cited as a distinguished story in The Best American Short Stories 2019. She lives in Boston, MA, where she teaches writing at Grub Street and Emmanuel College and is at work on a novel. Follow her on Twitter at @jillianmjackson.