Vanilla scented incense spiraled upward from a tasteful clutter of Hindu deity figurines, massage therapy brochures and a stone bowl of white stargazer lilies yawning freshly open. Rhonda squeezed a grape seed oil puddle into her palm and set the bottle down next to a foot tall brass Ganesh. Monks chanted in unison softly from speakers placed on a bookshelf sparsely decorated with books about meditation and each yoga variety invented the last couple decades. Rhonda slipped her sandals off. Toes and high arched feet sank into the buttery high pile hand-woven into the carpet she’d bought and shipped home from Morocco.
Rhonda left the sliding glass door open so her patient could smell the ocean while she kneaded his muscles loose. The daily tourist parade outside ate up the sound of green waves sloshing in the middle distance Rhonda stared into while massaging an oily naked stranger. Rhonda’s hands coated a glossy second skin over the scoliosis slope tenting the man’s back. Heads and shoulders bobbed across the landscape outside, their bodies obscured by the marble wall separating Rhonda’s Spanish tiled patio from the Venice Beach boardwalk’s cement slab.
“Still not a talker?” Cassidy asked from the front desk after the man left.
“Think I’d prefer it if they were quiet.”
“I don’t,” Rhonda answered. “Talkers are much more fun. Session goes right by when you’re talking. The connection is better. Much better.”
“It’s so sweet how you love people, Aunt Rhonda,” Cassidy smiled.
“Someone has to try. The VA guy is next, right?”
“Yup. And early,” Cassidy said gesturing toward the door.
A stooped figure struggled up the porch steps, leaning his weight on the skinny railing. Through the office’s glass door they saw him maneuver a cane to his limp side and wipe his brow. His sunburnt face was blankly determined. The man straightened rigid as his body allowed and collected his pain. Blade sharp cheeks hollowed to cover his tightened jaw. Turquoise beads strung behind the door clicked on the glass when he limped inside.
“Welcome, welcome. I’m Rhonda, I’m the massage therapist. Glad to meet you,” she beamed, greeting Cesar with a hug. Rhonda held him by the crook of the arm while introducing her niece Cassidy. “She runs the office, so if you ever need to reschedule, running late, you know, whatever, anything, just give her a ring,” Rhonda explained. “Okay, then. You, sir, are in good hands. We’ve worked with tons of veterans. The VA clinic already sent over your information, so we can just get started. Why don’t you go on in, right through there, and I’ll knock in a couple minutes to check if you’re ready.”
Cesar nodded and lumbered toward the massage room, his cane producing mechanical thuds on the glazed bamboo floor. His left arm clutched his chest like he tried minimizing how much his rib cage rattled each step.
“Cute,” Cassidy whispered under her breath, “but sad.”
Rhonda shook her head. She went into the bathroom, fastened her dreadlocks into a ponytail and splashed her face with cold water. She sat on the toilet to meditate in the marbled tiled silence. The words “but sad” wandered into Rhonda’s serenity and dissolved multiple attempts at mindfulness into simple quiet.
The tattoo was the first thing Rhonda noticed entering the massage room. Cesar laid flat on his stomach, naked except for a plush white towel draped over his midsection. Ink flooded his back, shoulders to the waist. Rhonda walked toward the table, gravitationally pulled by the need to see the tattoo closer.
Birds-of-Paradise loomed tall over several life-sized tropical flowers blossoming on Cesar’s back. Each flower had leaves the width of a baby’s hand. Two pythons swam between plant stems, one bearing fangs. Slanted raindrop-shaped scar tissue ripped freckled welts across his back, chipping away paint on the canvas. Muscular, swollen-veined legs scarred the same way branched out from under his towel.
“Did you get your tattoo in the Army?”
“Sorry. Marines. That’s right, I should’ve remembered. I know the difference means a lot,” Rhonda said.
“It’s beautiful. The tattoo, your tattoo—it’s really impressive.”