Many minutes passed before I noticed her. She sat, still and quiet, on the edge of the bench. Oblivious to the post-class bustle around her. The toilet flushed. Someone sprayed deodorant. Doors slammed, a water bottle dropped on the concrete floor, and I continued my call at full volume. Everyone in the locker room that Wednesday morning knew that I would be having a massage, a deep tissue massage, at 11am. With a male therapist. Which was not my preference, but it was very last-minute and I would take whatever I could get.
Still she sat.
“Ohmygd. Jess* are you okay?” The scheduler had put me on hold for a minute. Booking a massage was more involved than I anticipated.
Her dark eyes looked deep into mine, as if there she would find the answer I wanted to hear.
“I’m having a really hard two days.” Simple. Honest. My heart ached.
I thought fleetingly about how she had looked when she walked into class earlier: disheveled, her top on the wrong way, still rubbing sleep from her eyes. I had helped her get her arms through the right openings before taking my spot in front of the mirror.
She waited for my response.
“What was that, sorry? 50 or 80 minutes?” I repeated into the phone. “Hmmm, I don’t know…” I looked around the almost-empty locker room for someone to weigh in. The few women still there kept their eyes down. Nobody was interested in my dilemma.
“Eighty minutes definitely!” My eyes swung back to Jess. Her mouth was smiling (for me I thought) but her earlier confession hung between us, heavy and hard, like the aching lump in your throat that won’t go away no matter how many times you swallow. I know it wasn’t easy for her to admit to her difficult time… I know because I’ve been there mired in the muck and messiness of snot and tears and sadness.
I felt like an asshole. Scheduling my massage, loud and bright for all to hear, voicing my preference for a female therapist, explaining my schedule… and now asking Jess, who had just bravely admitted to me her pain, whether it should be 50 or 80 minutes. Why would she care? But she did.
I don’t really know Jess. I mean, I know she likes to work out, I know her schedule is similar to mine (we often find ourselves in the same class), I know she likes to push herself through the hardest part of class (I glimpse her in the mirror, eyes closed, exhaling through lips pursed in determination… I know the girl in that mirror), I know that I like her. We say “hey how’s it going?” and “gees that was a hard class.” She wears tights and tops in matching shades of purple and green, and her monochromatic aesthetic appeals to my desire, my longing even, for order and decorum.
Thank G-d my phone call with the high maintenance massage scheduler was over. I wanted to give Jess my full attention, but it was 10.45am and I was almost due at my massage: 50 minutes (80 felt too indulgent and also I knew I couldn’t endure someone’s hands on my body for that long), deep tissue, male therapist (I had to get over this part – it would be fine). I was the high maintenance one.
“Jess.” I put my hand on her sweaty shoulder. She was still sitting on the edge of the bench and it took me a while to realize she was waiting for the shower and not considering staying where she was for the rest of the day. Sometimes it takes all the energy you can gather simply to show up.
Those dark eyes again peering into mine.
“I’m so sorry you’re having a tough time. If you want to talk, any time, I’m here. Really. I mean it.” I hope she knew I did mean it. I was still wearing my workout tights, the high-waisted ones that keep everything in and up, but I wanted her to know that I would step into the shit with her. If she wanted. Sadness can be lonely, especially if it’s unexpected.
She squeezed my hand, told me she appreciated it. The shower was now free and I had five minutes to get to my massage.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Jess. I thought about her during the massage. I thought about her while I was driving, at the ATM, walking the aisles of the supermarket. I thought about her while making dinner, the barking dog and chattering kids vying for my attention. I was worried about her, wandered what had happened to make the last couple days “really hard,” and I wanted to help her. But I hardly knew her.
A few days later, I saw her again in the locker room.
“Jess! How are you?” There was so much more I wanted to say.
“Better,” she said. Her smile was gentle. Sincere.
Tell me what happened. Why were you sad? Do you often feel that way? Why then? Why do you feel better now? “I’m so glad. I’ve been worried about you.”
“Nicki.” Those eyes. Damn. “You helped me so much. Thank you.”
I had done nothing. Nothing. I had helped her untwist her top, and put my hand on her shoulder.
But those dark eyes had gazed with so much pain and sadness into my distracted green ones, and I saw her.
And she saw that I saw.
*Not her real name.