Out-of-Body Experiences, Etc.- Part 1

“I’ll have the lavender oil this time,” says Vivian. “Lavender is supposed to relax you, right? I could use the relaxation.” She shrugs off her cardigan – mornings at the Birches are chilly, even in June – and drapes it across the stool next to Miles’s massage table. This is the third day in a row that Vivian has come to the spa where Miles works, and still the sharpness of Vivian’s bare shoulders takes Miles by surprise every time he sees them.

“People say that, I guess,” Miles tells her. “Lavender for relaxation, peppermint for energy. I don’t know about that, but-” He shrugs. “Just pick something you’ll be okay with smelling for the rest of the day.”

“I’ll take the lavender, then.” Vivian gives her a polite smile, and Miles steps into the hallway. He doesn’t bother giving Vivian the usual instructions – undress to your level of comfort, lie face-down underneath the top sheet, note whether the headrest is comfortable, I’ll knock in a few minutes – since he gave them yesterday, and the day before that. No one else is here at 9:00, so Miles inspects the other two treatment rooms, checking for clean sheets on each massage table and shaking bottles of oil to make sure they’re full. Then he knocks on the door to Vivian’s room.

“Come in,” says a muffled voice.

Another thing Miles has noticed about Vivian is her long, dark hair, which spills over the headrest and glints red in the light from the salt crystal lamp. No hint of gray, even though Vivian must be – what – forty-five?

“What’s bothering you this morning?” Miles asks, even though he has a feeling that Vivian will say exactly what she said yesterday: I’m tense everywhere.

“I’m tense everywhere,” Vivian says.

“Let’s see what we can do about that.” Miles runs her hands down Vivian’s back, which is so knotted and unforgiving that it practically creaks, like a ship’s hull. Miles learned a long time ago not to compare his clients, but Vivian has some of the tightest muscles he’s ever worked with.

He pulls the sheet away from Vivian’s skin, warms a palmful of lavender-scented oil between his hands, and gets to work.

* * *

The day he met Vivian, Miles was only expecting a single client: Darlene, a woman in her late sixties who spent every summer at the Birches. She preferred it here in the summer, Darlene had told Miles once, because no one was around to ruin the experience for her. It was true that the mountain town of Rumsford really came to life in the winter, when heavy snows blanketed their little corner of New Hampshire. From May through October, the resorts and ski lodges lay empty. The drive from Miles’s house, which was twenty minutes away, took him on a winding path up the mountain that skirted developments of Swiss-inspired chalets and oversized log cabins. The kinds of homes that Phoebe would have made fun of with her high, clear voice. In June, all their windows were empty, which made Miles think of images from Stephen King books: ghost towns, possessed vacation homes, demonic animals stalking leftover residents.

That morning, Miles saw signs of life in maybe ten houses he passed. He wondered which one was Darlene’s summer cottage.

Serenity House, which took up part of the basement in the Birches’ central building, did manage to draw clients year-round. Rumsford, the closest town, was a half-hour drive away from the nearest city. Still, the Birches had hired some of the best estheticians and massage therapists in the state to staff its spa. Miles had moved every piece of furniture he owned – which wasn’t much after the divorce, he had been so shocked by Marie’s depression that he let her take most of their things – to a bungalow halfway between Rumsford and the Birches after getting the job. He wasn’t going to just leave every summer. But he couldn’t help a slight boil of jealousy at the idea of all the other therapists taking off to New York or Boston. Manchester, even. Any place with a building taller than five stories.

He rounded the bend in the road that brought him onto Birches property. The central building looked like a ski lodge that the architect had never been able to stop tinkering with. From far away, its many wings, sloping log roof peppered with chimneys, and gabled windows seemed impressive. Miles knew, though, that inside he’d find mildewed carpet that hadn’t been cleaned since ski season. And with no one to fill them, half the wings were shut down in the summer.

As he passed the front desk, the receptionist flagged him down. “Mr. Levy? There’s someone waiting for you downstairs.”

He checked his watch. “Darlene isn’t supposed to be here for an hour.”

“It’s not Darlene, sir. She said her name is Vivian? I’ve never seen her before.”

Miles worried his lower lip between his teeth. He could count the number of summer walk-ins he’d had that year on one hand. And it was still early in the morning – most clients preferred the afternoon or evening. “I’ll…well, there’s nothing stopping me from seeing her.”

He made to leave, but the receptionist leaned over his desk. “She seems a little…I’m not sure. There’s something sort of weird about her.”

Weird? he thought. That could mean anything. “Thanks for letting me know,” Miles said. He took the velvet-lined stairs to Serenity House slower than usual.

The first thing he noticed about the woman sitting on the couch in the spa’s waiting room was what she was wearing: a plain tank top and a long cotton skirt. He could see creases in the skirt where the dye had faded. Miles could understand why the receptionist had said the woman was weird: in the summer, most Birches visitors wore Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Her face, though, was striking: large blue eyes, strong bones, skin untouched by wrinkles.

“So sorry no one was down here to greet you,” he said. “During the summer, the spa receptionist doesn’t come in until eleven.”

She jumped stiffly to her feet and clasped the hand Miles held out. “It’s not a problem. I didn’t realize you weren’t open. I just-” She opened and closed her mouth a few times, as if she couldn’t decide what to say next.

“What’s your name?” he said, gentle, although he already knew.



She paused, just for a fraction of a moment, then said, “Malory.”

He glanced at her fingers for a wedding band and saw a thin silver ring. “Mrs. Malory. Nice to meet you. Can I book you an appointment, or…?”

“I was wondering if you were free now?” She must have seen surprise on his face, because she went on: “I know it’s strange to show up like this, but I won’t be in the area long, and my muscles are so tight that driving hurts-”

He smiled, but not too much. Smiles could loosen up a nervous customer, but smiles that seemed too big could look predatory, especially from a male massage therapist. “Please, don’t worry about it. I won’t have anyone in for an hour. If we start right away, we can get in about forty minutes.” He saw her face relax. “Let’s just sit down and talk briefly about this pain you’ve been feeling.”

Miles realized, as he began to probe her back and shoulders a few moments later, that Vivian hadn’t been joking. In fact, her muscles were so tense that he couldn’t find specific knots, but rather networks of them, joined like blood vessels. “No significant injuries,” she’d said as she filled out the release paperwork. Still, the only other client he could remember with a similar level of tightness was a retired rock climber who had fallen several times.

“Does this happen often?” he said, but softly and warmly, to keep from breaking the feeling of calm that blanketed the room.

“Does what happen often?” The face cradle muffled her voice.

“The tightness.”

“Oh. Yes. A few times a year.”

He pressed the heel of his palm into a knot on her deltoid. “Do you have any idea why?”

“Seasonal affective disorder.” Miles could feel her sighing. “That’s what the doctors say, anyway.”

“But it’s June. I thought seasonal affective disorder happened in the winter?”

“I have it in reverse. It’s the summer that makes me feel depressed.”

He moved on to her neck, which felt like a brick. “That’s strange,” he said after a pause, because he wasn’t sure what else to say. Then: “Do you have any children?” It was the first question that came to mind.

“I do. Four.”

“And are they enjoying the Birches?”

“They’re not here, actually. They’re back in Virginia. Where we live.”

“Summer camp?” he guessed.

“No, no. They’re all at home with their father.” She breathed in, then out, and he felt her body start to loosen as she said, “They don’t know I’m here.”

Read Part 2