A childhood friend imagined that in my family we would all sit together on our long green couch in a row and watch television. She imagined us as dignified in that very particular way. I don’t remember my family ever doing that — not once.
When I was very small, I sometimes sat on my dad’s lap in his recliner while he watched the news or a history program — the sober and studied voices of the commentators washed over me, the stories I found confusing. I matched my breath with his deeper inhalations, my head against his white undershirt. It required concentration and was difficult for my smaller lungs to hold as much oxygen as his. It was strangely comforting.
A rum and Coke sat on a table at our side in a glass decorated with the ups and downs of the stock market. Sometime he would give me a sip. I liked the tangy, sweet flavor.
The couch had a bachelor quality — perhaps it was a remnant from my father’s life before he met my mother in his early thirties, she barely out of her teens. Its pillows were wide and firm and worked architecturally well for the construction of forts and set design that my older sister and I produced in the living room of our 100 year old home under renovation for much of our childhood.
We frequently created dance performances set to the song “It’s A Small World” and the end result — the drama, the costumes, the audience — never came together in quite the colorful and magnificent way that I envisioned them. I remember this when my own two boys set out to create tree houses and put on plays of their own. I relate to their disappointment when the outer experience doesn’t mirror the inner one.
Lying down, each of our heads pressed to either end of the couch, my sister and I connected our feet in the middle — her legs always longer than mine. Together we would form a bridge, raising our feet up into a triangle shape between us.We would press hard against each other, trying to make the other collapse. Sometimes it would end up in kicking. We observed the differences in our feet, my sister’s wider and with a callus between her second and third toes. She would ask me to press as hard as I could on the rough spot with my nail, proving that she couldn’t feel a thing.
My feet were so narrow that my mother took me around to multiple shoe stores trying to find a pair of dress shoes that would fit. I could never wear stylish flats like other girls because they were like flip-flops on me. Inevitably the shoes she purchased were still too wide and blisters formed just above my heel whenever we had to dress up, which seemed like a lot.
In my early twenties I was enthralled in my first love affair with an advertising copywriter, David. We lived ten blocks from one another in New York City. I once left his apartment in a huff on a Saturday morning after a lover’s quarrel. I walked briskly home carrying my stylish boots from an evening out the night before and ran into a co-worker headed to brunch with her husband.
Her life seemed so peaceful and grown-up, mine more like a petulant child’s. She noticed the boots in my hand. I had trouble explaining my haste, and running into her made the prospect of a weekend alone in the city that much worse.
David bought me an expensive sweater for a ski trip to Steamboat Springs, where we spent New Year’s Eve floating in a natural spring in heated bliss and a gift certificate for reflexology at a hidden boutique in the West Village.
My anxiety was heightened in those days from too much wine-drinking and the pressure of trying to make things too permanent too soon. Sinking into the heated massage chair, a pillow under my knees — feet dipped in a warm tub of water — I experienced a level of tranquility I had never known until then.
On a few occasions, we visited David’s father, a Zen monk who lived in the Blue Hills of Virginia. I loved his monastic home with its silent meals and meditation cushions. I always wondered if he advised David to end our relationship. He would have had good reason, given his own arduous experience marrying too young.
I appreciate the five fruitful years of wandering this release offered me. One of the places I wandered into after our tumultuous breakup was a Chinese reflexology center on Sullivan Street in Manhattan.
The storefront was decidedly no-frills with a forest green awning and a ubiquitous map of the human foot displayed in the window. It had a barred gate that came down in the evening when they closed.
There was an entryway with a couple of chairs and a bowl of mints and more diagrams of the feet. I was always greeted warmly by a Chinese woman with a scar over her lip and on one side of her face by her eye. I would have liked to have known her more but there was a vast language barrier between us. Our eyes always danced together when we met — a mutual recognition and gratitude living between us.
In the massage room, tables were lined up with very little space between clients. I would tuck myself in under the white sheet, stripping off my shirt and bra and getting comfortable face-down on the table.
There was a lack of pretense to the massages that was different from what you might find in a spa. The space between the practitioner’s hands and what ailed me seemed narrower. It was an inexpensive salve to my lonesome soul that I enjoyed countless times.
I brought my friends and sisters there and recovered from numerous relationships in that modest space, eventually saying goodbye when a marriage and a move took me a long way away.
My sisters have been visiting me in Maine for several summers now along with their children. The idea is for our kids to attend summer camp while we do some relaxing of our own. I have been eyeing a Chinese massage studio in Portland for years now. It is somehow hidden on a busy street and the entry requires a climb up a dark staircase with a concealed doorway.
It seems that my adventurous, try-anything spirit has dampened. Years of breastfeeding and staying within a stone’s throw of my children has weakened my impulse to venture out into an appealing place such as this on my own.
When given the opportunity to unwind together, my sisters — having previously enjoyed massages with me many times — ask about where my spot is here.
“I don’t have one,” I reply.
And then I tell them about the place in Portland that I haven’t been to.
We are almost giddy as we climb the stairs together. We take in the unassuming space with its traditional Chinese décor and are greeted by a woman whose American name is Shirley. Her friendly smile is familiar.
Some of the other women are more stern. They speak rapidly in Chinese about how they are going to accommodate all three of us at the same time, and there is some confusion. My older sister is interested in a full-body massage but I am anxious about the time — we have to get back to our children in an hour — so I decide to have only foot reflexology.
The women ask my sisters to wait in one room and I move into the next. The chair I am sitting in takes me back to my very first experience with reflexology in the West Village. It is comfortable and soothing. The lights in the room are low and Shirley smiles at me as she begins to take my feet into her hands.
There is a thin wall separating us from my sisters and I can hear their vociferous chatting. They are laughing and also discussing serious things, like our 100 year old home and whether it will stay in the family.
I close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing, taking in the melody of their voices. I open my eyes again and Shirley and I exchange a smile at the ongoing noise.
“Nice family,” she says.
About the author
Meghan Anderson Nathanson is a writer and visual artist living and working in coastal Maine. On her website (www.meghannathanson.com) she writes about mindful presence, inner and outer freedom and the gifts of the earth.