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.”
“Well, then, let’s get started,” Rhonda said. She couldn’t pry her eyes away from the tattoo, squeezing grape seed oil into her palm while studying the scene. “How long were you in the Marines?” she asked rubbing her hands together.
“Wow. See a lot of the world?”
“Oh. Sorry,” Rhonda apologized. She laid her hands on the blank space between his tattoo and the towel and asked Cesar to let her know if he experienced any discomfort.
“Will do, ma’am.”
“This is a really beautiful tattoo.”
Over salmon filet dinner Rhonda described each flower in the tattoo’s shape and color to her wife Sonya. Saturday afternoon they took their son to Small World Books, where Rhonda bought an Audubon Society tropical flower guide. In bed later they found each species tattooed on Cesar’s back. Sonya rolled a joint and they joked about how the flowers had names Venice moms gave their babies. Banana flower. Red ginger. Denodrobium orchid. Epiphyllum. Rhonda stayed up late reading about flowers after Sonya fell asleep with her hand on Rhonda’s bare ocher stomach.
Rhonda waited all week for her next session with Cesar. She’d treated dozens of veterans who barely grunted. Most had tattoos, usually some combination of girls, eagles, crucifixes, guns or flags. A few of Rhonda’s regular patients wore tattoos etched into their tanned beach community skin. One woman who drove down from Malibu twice a week had a snake coiled around a small dagger plunged into the small of her back. But, Cesar’s ink was so large and beautifully done. It looked meant to have someone touch it in bed asking how much it hurt. Cesar took the tattoo to war, kicking down wooden plank doors searching for insurgents wearing a wild paradise seared onto his back.
“Epiphyllum,” Rhonda said.
“What’s that, ma’am?” Cesar lifted his head from the table to ask.
“This flower. Right here.”
Cesar grunted in a way that explained he’d both heard and understood her comment. Rhonda waited a moment before naming another flower.
“You know a lot about flowers, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Cesar, thanks,” Rhonda fumbled. She didn’t know how to continue the conversation. Cesar let it die.
Saturday evening Rhonda took a bath, steeped in hot water for over an hour. Drying off, she caught the sun dying into the Pacific flash directly through her bathroom window. It touched ginger light across the eggshell colored walls. Rhonda’s eyes moved around the bathroom. A flower the same color grew up Cesar’s spine, the only one both snakes in his tattoo touched.
“Hey, joining us for dinner?” Sonya popped her head in to ask.
“Come here,” Rhonda said.
“Seriously? We can’t—”
“Now,” Rhonda ordered firmly. “Get over here.”
Sonya smiled and walked over for a kiss. Rhonda slipped a hand under Sonya’s blouse and pawed at her breasts. She pushed Sonya against a flower petal wall and touched her face before they kissed again.
“The kid is in the—” Sonya began to say when her bra came off. “What’s come over you?”
Rhonda didn’t bother to answer, choosing instead to bite Sonya’s neck. She pushed Sonya down to her knees and touched her face again.
Rhonda rubbed Cesar’s kidneys. She’d spent the last few minutes telling him about her new Wednesday morning appointment, a woman who had a small green apple tattoo branded onto her left butt cheek.
“She got it in Havasu during spring break when she was nineteen. Guess everyone picks their battlefields, right?” Rhonda joked. Cesar’s shoulders pivoted in a single laugh. She chose a moment when his guard seemed down to finally ask, “So, where did you get the idea for your tattoo?”
Cesar’s back calmed to a flat surface. The snakes got very still, like they’d found something worth biting. Rhonda kept the massage going, almost trying to physically coax more words out of Cesar’s body.
“From a friend of mine. Guy I met over there.”
“In the Middle East?” Rhonda asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Friend I met in Afghanistan drew it. When we were out in the hills. He liked to draw.”
“It’s gorgeous,” Rhonda gushed. Immediately she felt embarrassed, then angry at herself for choosing such a feminine word to use with Cesar. “How many times did you go?” she asked, to keep him talking. “To Afghanistan. The Middle East. I mean, the Gulf.”
“Six, ma’am. Went there six times.”
“A friend of yours drew this? He’s a good artist.”
“Yes, he was, ma’am. He drew it for me and then I got it done in Hawaii when I rotated back to the world after he died. That’s where he was from. Hawaii. Then they sent me back two more times before I got hurt.”
Rhonda let out a deep breath. After working with veterans, she knew Cesar didn’t want to hear anything about the war or how his friend’s life had been wasted.
“I’m really sorry for your loss, Cesar,” she said.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he answered. “Thank you very much.”
Quietly, Rhonda focused on her hands methodically gliding up and down Cesar’s back. She stopped when she noticed both the snakes had closed their eyes. Rhonda pushed her thumbs deep into their faces, but couldn’t get the snakes to open their eyes again.
“Ma’am, that hurts,” Cesar winced.
“Sorry. I’m sorry, Cesar.”
Lying on the ocean floor, Rhonda found sunlight melting on the surface miles overhead. The pristine water reminded Rhonda of vacationing in Turks and Caicos last summer. Her son was amazed at being able to see his toes so clearly in the surf. “The water isn’t green,” he said. He kept telling them it was better than Venice Beach.
Glare floating on the surface above bled out two snakes that knifed down through the water toward Rhonda. Each had a body that was just one long muscle built for swallowing. Eyes. Teeth. Throat. Tail. They circled out of Rhonda’s reach like streaming ribbons tugged into figure eights. The snakes kept trying to bite each other.
Rhonda woke up panting and feeling nauseous. Sonya was still asleep beside her. Rhonda went down to the kitchen and drank a bottle of water while standing naked in the gold refrigerator door light. She took a second bottle back to bed, finishing half before going to sleep and having the dream again.
Tuesday morning Rhonda didn’t want to go to work. Her eyes were wide open half hour before the alarm went off. She spent the time watching Sonya sleep. At six-thirty the radio started talking. KCRW was having a pledge drive, the morn