Amateur Night


First Person


Image via Pod Collective

Instead of attending my ten-year high school reunion I went to a psychic healer. This was the Boston suburbs, on the eve of Thanksgiving. Annually, on the night in question, prodigal Massholes in the eighteen-to-thirty-five demographic flock to the bars in Allston, Brighton, and downtown Boston for both informal and official reunions. Said reunions are marked by blackout binge drinking, vomit-flooded gutters, vomit-mouthed makeout sessions, and less-than-sober car rides back to the suburbs in mom-borrowed minivans. Boston radio DJ’s have euphemistically dubbed it “Amateur Night.”

If this sounds appealing, then we may have been friends in high school—at least in a superficial, pass the blunt kind of way—but no longer have much, if anything, in common. I don’t mean that to sound snobbishly pejorative. I grew up just outside of Boston, in Newton, Massachusetts, a wealthy white enclave famous for Fig Newtons, a high concentration of psychiatrists, and its recent reign as CQ Press’s safest city in America. It is a place filled with driven parents and overachieving children; of the roughly 350 students in my graduating class, nearly a dozen went to Harvard, not to mention all those who attended safety schools like Princeton, Brown, and Cornell. Many of my former classmates have gone on to great success. But high achievement and Frat Boy idiocy are not mutually exclusive. Like Clark Kent, my former classmates slip easily from business attire to superhero casual, removing stiff shirts at happy hour to reveal Red Sox logos. By day they are lawyers, doctors, and titans of industry. By night they drop their ‘r’s and instigate fisticuffs with tough-talking townies. In part, this performance reeks of rich kid guilt—it’s a certain kind of slumming—but more so, I think it speaks to something particularly Bostonian, a product of drinking too much dirty water, or years spent sitting in obscured view seats at Fenway, or a Kennedy-inherited Irish McLiberalism, in which money is disconnected from decorum.

I know all of this—the styles and habits of my former classmates—through Facebook, of course. I have followed these classmates for years online, sharing in their triumphs and tragedies, comparing my sex partners to theirs. In a sense, social media has rendered reunions obsolete; it has killed our curiosity. No longer does one attend a reunion wondering whatever happened to so-and-so, or shocked that the band geek has blossomed into a beauty. And though romantic comedies have emphasized the important role reunions can play in the healing of one’s high-school psychic wounds, the truth, these days, is that life’s winners have already etched their humble brags into our collective conscience online.

But maybe I was just bitter and embarrassed. It’s not that I was in such bad shape ten years on—I’d managed to kick a drug habit (Tylenol PM), move out of my parents’ basement, and trick a wonderful woman into dating me—but that in a group of high achievers, I was definitively unimpressive. After a long period of unemployment, I had moved to New York and become the cliché of a struggling writer, working part-time in a bookstore, publishing occasional TV recaps online, and squeezing into the skinniest jeans I could manage. I’d received a number of rejections on my autobiographical novel about a twenty-something stoner who can’t get over high school.

In high school, I had been one of those supposedly smart kids who wastes his potential by taking ecstasy in basements and trance-dancing to the techno remix of Rusted Root’s “Send Me On My Way.” I was liked but unloved, laughed with and at in equal measure, a sexual Switzerland. For years I had entertained fantasies of one day returning to my hometown in triumph, arriving at the reunion as a famous author or rocker or magically horse-hung porn star. As this was not the case, and as I had also gone bald, and as my girlfriend wouldn’t even be in town to help me prove that I was no longer a virgin, I decided to skip the reunion. I had already managed to experience all the attendant shame without leaving the comfort of my Snuggie.

The Healer was my mother’s idea. Mom had been seeing The Healer on the recommendation of a friend ever since the death of her father—my grandfather—one year prior. My mother is an artist, and eccentric, at least by suburban standards. For as long as I can remember, she has reddened her hair with henna and worn red clog shoes. She is a spiritual person, not in a wonky, new agey way, but in an artsy Jewish way, the kind of person who might find value in a psychic healing session despite her inherent disbelief in the very concept. She told me that The Healer gave the best massage she’d ever had, a rough ride from toes to dome. The Healer had informed my mother that her body was still grieving, that grief had manifested in her muscles and bones. She had contacted my grandfather from beyond the grave. She had laid hot stones atop my mother’s back and shoulders. My mother agreed that the body, too, must heal.

I’m not sure what about this appealed to me. There was the promise of a free massage, sure. But beyond this, there was my own sense of mourning, for my grandfather, yes, but also—like Masha’s from The Seagull—for my own life. Perhaps it was the moment in time; the economic downturn and my generation’s particular brand of Internet-exacerbated human disconnect. Or maybe it was burnout from blunt smoking, or melancholy about my career prospects, or jadedness, or Prozac numbification, or reading too much David Foster Wallace. Either way, I’d begun to feel the way I once had while smoking opium in the back seat of a friend’s Saab. Instead of the common drug experience of hovering above one’s body, I had felt almost the opposite, as if my conscience was so deeply embedded in my own corporeality, that the outside world was somehow walled off; I could feel the presence of other people, but they were on a separate plane, deeply unknowable, interacting in the ether. It was sort of like having terrible head cold, when your ears are insulated with mucus and everything sounds far away. And though I didn’t plan to use the healer to contact my grandfather, or even believe this was possible, I did allow myself a vague optimism that maybe this woman could help pull me out of my death-like trance and reconnect me to my old self.

It’s possible that a high school reunion was what I actually needed. It would have given me the chance to reconvene with those, like me, who had grown up in the same privileged environment, unprepared for life’s obstacles. But my former classmates weren’t people to me. They were avatars. I knew them only by the shallow signifiers of social media—curated photos of them looking their best, posing at weddings in rented tuxedoes, or tanned and smiling on foreign beaches alongside half-naked spouses, who, via tricks of the light, looked impossibly luminescent, inhumanly happy. The bite and grind of their actual lives was unknown to me; all I saw was un-relatable elation.

The den of healing was the top floor of a duplex in the bad part of town. Newton—at least South Newton, where I grew up—is the kind of town where the bad part of town is still a pretty good part of town. The thing that makes it bad is the duplexes. No one likes a neighbor. I sat in the waiting room with my heart beating fast. I’m not sure why I was so nervous. I’d had many massages, mostly the cheapo kind that are ubiquitous in New York City, and often leave one in worse pain than when you entered. But this was different. I felt a strange charge, like I was on a blind date. The room smelled like potpourri, which reminded me of my grandmother, who hid stashes of the stuff throughout her house. When my grandmother was  twenty-three, her father, sister, and mother were killed in a tornado. My grandmother, too, spent the rest of her life permanent mourning, for her family, but also for something more general: innocence perhaps, spring’s optimistic blossom. Open a drawer, and there were wilted flowers.

The Healer appeared, draped in silk and gauze, her curly hair untamed. She gave ethnic vibes, but I knew she was Jewish like me: eye-glassed, autumn-hearted, blooming with Eros. Giant breasts ballooned through her lacy blouse. She looked like one of those gentle, older porn stars who now teach tantra workshops on late night HBO. “I’ll just be a sec,” she said, and scampered off into another room.

The walls were thin, and from my chair I could hear The Healer arguing with someone in the next room. The Healer had the throaty harsh of a Boston accent. It’s an ugly accent—uglier on a woman—the kind of voice I associate with sports radio and rough hand jobs. The other voice was younger, and in comparison sounded almost adorably shrill: the age-old timbre of teenage rage. They were talking about homework, about staying out too late, the usual stuff.

I imagined the daughter imagining me out there in the waiting room. Another body to writhe under her mother’s fingers. I imagined the daughter hating her mother, and hating it here in this partitioned office-parlor-home, and again I thought of the reunion, and the misery of high school, a misery I couldn’t even articulate as misery at the time because I knew nothing else. As far as I was concerned that was simply the state of human existence: awful longing, anger at everyone, unquenched sexual urges.

The Healer returned to the waiting room with the fakest smile I’d ever seen. She apologized for the delay, said something about the perils of parenting. I followed her into the healing area, where I was left to strip naked and lie facedown beneath a blanket.

The healing area reminded me of a Victorian boudoir, like the ones I’d seen in period films as an adolescent, suffering the stilted dialogue to scan for visible nipples. There were antique lamps, mirrors whose styles didn’t quite match, and a four-poster bed instead of a massage table. The room was decorated in trinkets from all variety of religions, including various Buddha statues and a Native American dream catcher.

In the mirror, I searched my body for signs that I was dying—unexplained bruises, discolorations, pre-cancerous moles. I’d had many of these moles as a child and teen, and my body was pocked with small scars from the removal surgeries. In a couple days I would be attending the thirtieth birthday party of a close friend who wouldn’t live to see another year. He’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer out of the blue, six months earlier. This would be his final fete, a time for friends to send him love and make their peace. I was not prepared for the event—in fact I was terrified. I’d known people my age who’d died before, but none so close to me, and none by such an unexpected bodily betrayal. They’d died in car accidents and drug overdoses, or by their own hands. To die from disease seemed like something that was supposed to happen when you were older, and this instance, I thought, maybe meant that now I was older, that I had somehow slipped toward middle age without my knowing, that it was all grief and fear from here on out.

I was under the covers when The Healer returned.

“Sorry about that,” she said. “She lives with her father during the week, but now she’s here for the holiday. Things get a little cramped. Close quarters, you know?” She lubed up her hands.

My mother had been right about the massage. She started off slow and soft, gradually getting rougher. She told me I was very tense, totally knotted. I tried to relax. I pretended the bed was a coffin and that death was like this: serene, sleepy, sweet smelling. She tugged on my arms, kneaded my thighs, twisted my toes. It all felt good, but did nothing for my disconnect. I was far away, embedded in my body, while The Healer thought about her daughter or  mortgage, or something or other. My body was nothing but an object, some ugly silly putty. She stretched it in her hands.

After a while, The Healer told me to turn over. She laid the hot stones on the bed beneath my back. She rubbed something on my chest and said that she was hitting my heart chakra. It smelled like Vicks VapoRub. She asked about my astrological sign, how old I was, other questions. I told her I was an Aries. She told me that I was entering Saturn Return and that my life was about to change. I wanted desperately to believe her, to believe in astrology, anything. She asked if I wanted to contact anyone from beyond the grave and I said that I did not, and we both kind of laughed like we were embarrassed the subject had even come up.

When I said I was from New York, she asked if it was like the show Gossip Girl. I told her I didn’t know. I’d only been the Upper East Side once, and that was to visit the Whitney Museum. She said that Chuck Bass was her favorite character and I agreed, and for a moment I forgot I was her client and felt like her friend. From there we moved onto the differences between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and what other shows we watched, and whether I had trouble digesting dairy (how on earth did she figure that out?).

All the while, she rubbed lotion on my inner thigh. I thought about not getting an erection, a thought process that, inevitably, always leads to getting an erection. The Healer acted like she didn’t notice.

Apparently it’s considered a professional courtesy for members of the massage industry to ignore erections. I always thought this was somehow more awkward, until one time a non-English speaking masseuse stopped what she was doing, pointed at my penis, and said the word “bad.” Since then I’ve come to appreciate the professional courtesy.

The Healer continued to run her hands up, down, around my thighs, almost, but never actually grazing my groin. At some point, she lifted one of my legs and pushed my foot toward my face. There was a deep pain on the underside of my thigh, hamstring stretched like taught rope, on the verge of snapping. I almost yelped. The sheet slipped off, and my balls were exposed, hanging droopy in front of The Healer. The pain was supposed to be the good kind of pain, but I don’t know what that means—the good kind of pain—and suddenly all I could feel was the badness of it all: the soreness and tenderness and vulnerability, my crushable testicles cold and exposed. This was what I feared about the reunion too—nakedness, the sad truth behind my own online avatar, humanity on ugly display.

Just as the pain was becoming too much to bear The Healer let loose my leg and lowered it. She knew my threshold. I was safe in her hands.

I’m not sure if the healing session, or Saturn’s Return had anything to do with it, but things began to improve for me. I sold my novel, moved with my girlfriend and cat into a lovely apartment, and got a famous porn actress to star in my book trailer. Even my lactose intolerance seemed to abate.