Inhalation

‘Try to relax,’ I advised, dipping my fingers into the tub of lavender oil. 

He shifted about nervously, face planted firmly in the hole. I could tell I was his first. How flattering. It’d been a while since a virgin had walked through my doors. 

I rubbed my hands together vigorously, trying to warm them up before I planted them in the middle of his back. He repelled at the touch regardless.

‘It’s okay,’ I whispered, sliding my palms up to the nape of his neck. 

I could tell from the knots in his shoulder blades that he’d been carrying around an emotional burden. The tension around his temples spoke of a clenched jaw, the natural curve of his fists told me he had a habit of being unyielding. The stiff way he held his head suggested he spent hours playing pretend — whether the part of a joyful salesperson or a stern leader was harder to discern. A couple of healed bruises lined his lower back; perhaps in their earlier lives they’d been sports injuries. His toned physique told me he took good care of his material self, although I surmised that his mental well-being was questionable.

His muscles felt like clay under my fingers: pliable and eager to be shaped at a wheel. I quickly realised he was my favourite kind of client: inexperienced and unchallenging. Over the course of the hour I experimented with pressures: feathery, soft, ample, firm, crushing. He responded to them all but I made a mental note that ‘ample’ made him inhale most profoundly. I almost didn’t realise the minutes slip away, until the little hummingbird timer reached a crescendo, chirping the end of our hour together.

He didn’t say much as he sat up and merely grunted his approval as he cracked his joints. I stepped into the adjoining room to give him some privacy, but I made my way back to him promptly with a credit card machine. I thanked him profusely as he signed off on a 50% tip and slid a business card under his wallet, in hopes that he would pass it along.

My phone buzzed in my pocket and I pulled it out to find a text from Luna, telling me she’d be running a few minutes late to our appointment. Behind me, I could hear him fumbling with his belt. I turned around, eyes shifting about discreetly as I tried to find ways to stall him. I peeked at my wrist and sure enough, my heart rate had kicked up just from watching him tie up his laces. I felt the palpitations rise, floating up from my chest, to my neck and up my throat. He looked up at me as he pocketed his belongings. I gestured at his pack of Marlboros.

‘Got a couple?’ I asked, reaching for my keys. 

He nodded, and I followed him out the door.

Downstairs, we found a little nook under a window sill and lit up. We looked the part of two brooding actors on screen, clad in black, seeking refuge from the onslaught of precipitation. That is, until the cigarette hit my lips; I ruined the allure when a single drag reduced me to a coughing fit. Tobacco was disgusting. He raised an eyebrow at me.

‘Not my usual brand,’ I mumbled, looking away.

We watched the world drive by us: the swinging headlights around the intersection, puddles growing larger, pedestrians trotting past us under umbrellas or whatever they had on hand. I inhaled deeply, reminiscing yet again about the monsoons I’d grown up with. Seattle showers just didn’t carry scents of warm earth, vegetation or life with them like petrichor in Bangalore. 

I stole a glance at my watch again, cursing inwardly at Luna’s tardiness. He was almost done with his first and I was afraid I’d have to coax him into round two. 

Just as I was about to launch into a pitch, she appeared around the corner. I breathed a sigh of relief.

‘Here’s my next client,’ I nodded toward her.

‘I should be heading out anyway,’ he replied, upturning his collar.

‘Come back soon,’ I suggested, putting the cigarette out against the wall.

He nodded, dropping the butt under his foot as he walked away. I watched his retreating figure with a feeling of contentment, knowing that I’d succeeded in gaining a repeat customer.

‘You smoke now?’ Luna barked.

‘I’m just trying to make friends,’ I retorted defensively, ‘Isn’t that what you’re always pushing me to do?’

We bickered our way up the stairs, as was tradition each time she paid me a visit.

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