Couple’s Massage

This story of mine was the Runner Up in the Elle Fiction Awards 2013 and has been published in the October 2013 issue of Elle India magazine.

Ramesh and Nimmi are not the most adventurous of couples. Their marriage was arranged seven years ago by a group of enthusiastic mamas and mamis and since then, they have led a peaceful, if unexciting, life together in a third floor apartment on Bannerghetta Road.

Their routine is humdrum – Nimmi wakes up like clockwork at six-thirty every morning, sets the milk to boil and brushes her teeth. The shrill whistle from the milk boiler wakes Ramesh up at six-forty. He switches it off and picks up the paper. While Nimmi makes coffee and breakfast, he claims the bathroom. They are creatures of habit – their kitchen is run like a fixed-menu restaurant. On Mondays, Nimmi makes idlies and sambar. Dosas on Tuesdays, upma on Wednesdays, cereal and toast on Thursdays and a McDonald’s breakfast of hash browns and muffins on Fridays. They are a little bolder on weekends – Nimmi even ventures to make puri-sagu or channa-bhature. They never pack lunch.

They leave the house by nine-fifteen every day. On the way to work, Ramesh drops Nimmi off at the bus stop where her company bus picks her up. It is seven-thirty or later when he returns, picking up Nimmi from the same bus stop. Sometimes they make a small detour on the way home and go grocery shopping at the Nilgiris supermarket two streets away. Dinner is always rice and dal with a single vegetable stir-fry. Both of them enjoy sitcoms and watch Two and a Half Men regularly – well, at least until Charlie Sheen was on air. (They disapprove heavily of Ashton Kutcher.) Nimmi falls asleep on the recliner at eleven, and Ramesh immediately switches to CNN or Ten Sports. Every night, he wakes her up and they move to the bedroom no later than midnight.

They make love regularly twice a week – once mid-week and once on weekends. Ramesh is a gentle lover and Nimmi is receptive, if not proactive, in their fumblings. The one unspoken question in their life is the absence of children. Neither of them particularly wants to be a parent – but like everything else they are accustomed to, having children seems to be something automatically expected of them. Seven years is too long a time – their parents have given up making hopeful hints. The thought is there – like a gray mist between them – but they have not said it out loud to each other. However, they have not yet started worrying about infertility or considered taking tests.

Today is their seventh wedding anniversary. It is a Saturday.

Nimmi wakes up a little earlier than usual. She has bought an extra packet of milk to make payasam – their annual anniversary dessert. She owns a gleaming microwave, but has never considered baking. She goes about chopping carrots and beans for their anniversary-special fried rice. This is always accompanied by raita and a cauliflower fry. (Ramesh dislikes gobi Manchurian immensely.)

Suddenly, Ramesh appears at the kitchen door. This surprises her – it is his usual newspaper hour, even on anniversary day.

“What’s the matter?” she asks.

He is red-faced, like a schoolboy caught watching porn.

“I’ve bought us something…”

She is now astonished – he has already taken her out the previous evening and bought her a kurti of her choice with matching jewelry. The new Lee Child novel that she had ordered for him on Flipkart had been delivered a day early, but had still delighted him. One gift is all they give each other every year.

This is new territory – she doesn’t know how to react. But she feels a warm thrill in the small, light hairs at the back of her neck.

“What is it?” she asks, a little breathlessly.

He hands her a purple and gold coupon. She flips it open and reads, her lips moving silently.

“SPAce The Spa… couples’ massage… exotic oils… crumbling rose petals… hot towels… rejuvenating… refreshing… awakening your sensuality… ”

She feels her face burn. She can hardly look at him in the eye.

He seems to sense the heat of her shame and stammers,

“I-it was just an impulse buy…I saw their offer on Snapdeal and thought… we have never done something like this before… so I thought maybe… it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to go– ”

Her face is flushed – she is wondering wildly what has happened to him. A couples’ massage! There is something so intimate and furtive about the very phrase that makes her heart beat faster. She tries to imagine the two of them lying down next to each other in a strange room – but she cannot conjure up the images. The tumult of feelings that rise in her leaves her shaken. It is crazy, insane…

Abruptly, she says, “I don’t mind. Let’s go.”

*

They drive there in the car and find a parking spot two streets away. It is a small place next to a high-end Chinese restaurant. An impossibly short girl named Anna ushers them cheerfully into a warmly-lit lounge. The décor is subtle and soothing – unidentifiable instrumental music in the background, dried flowers arranged in long-necked vases, abstract art on the walls, soft pouffes and couches to sit back on… Nimmi thinks it is very tastefully done. Some of her awkwardness disappears. She even stops worrying whether someone they know would see them there.

“This is Rebecca and this is Twinkle – they will be your masseuses today…” Anna introduces two small, fine-boned girls.

It is only later, when Rebecca and Twinkle usher them into a spacious, dimly-lit room with high ceilings, that Nimmi realizes that Ramesh’s masseuse is also a woman. For a second, she wonders if she is jealous – but before she can sort out her thoughts, the girls leave them in the bathroom to change.

In all their seven years together, they have never fully undressed in front of each other – Nimmi always wears a nightie to bed and Ramesh sleeps in pajamas.

They know by touch, the familiar lines and curves of each other’s bodies, but feel strangely shy in front of each other. In the warm golden light, Nimmi notices the flex of Ramesh’s chest muscles as he pulls the bathrobe around him. There is a small brown mole on the right side of his chest that she has never noticed before. This new knowledge excites her. She wants to put out a hand and touch it, but he has pulled the robe tightly around himself. She undresses quickly, shielding herself as much as she can with her clothes, and dons the robe. There is a soft tap on the door.

Without looking at each other, they walk out and lie face down on two adjacent beds. The room is so dimly-lit that she can hardly make out where her masseuse is. She senses, rather than sees, his presence on the other bed.

Soft hands drop warm oil on her. She tenses up for an instant as the hands move over her naked back, but there is a soft murmur at her ear,

“Madam, you must relax…”

And she does. The hands do their magic – her shoulders, back and legs are massaged gently, almost lovingly. Her head swims with the overpowering scent of lavender and rose. Fingers run through her scalp, arousing sensations that she didn’t know existed. There is soft music being played – she cannot recognize the piece. She turns her head to the left and sees his indistinct silhouette on the bed. The girl is standing beside him, moving her hands over his back.

What is he feeling? She suddenly thinks.

This is something she has never thought about before. What does he feel as the small, pale hands move all over his back, kneading his muscles, tracing the contours of his body? What can he be thinking? Does the girl tickle his ear? Do her fingers play on the back of his knee? Is he aroused at her touch? Nimmi thinks that she can hear her husband moan softly.

She suddenly feels dizzy. And sick.

The masseuse stops, rather abruptly. She sits up, feeling cold and exposed.

“Thank you madam… you fill find towels in the bathroom” the girl murmurs and withdraws.

Ramesh’s girl – yes, she thinks of her like that, not knowing which one was Rebecca and which one was Twinkle – is winding down. Helping him put on his robe. Nimmi averts her eyes and moves to the bathroom, wiping down the oil and dressing swiftly. By the time Ramesh enters the bathroom, she is ready to leave.

They are both silent on the way back home. They do not meet each other’s eye, or ask each other about the experience. Anna has offered them a free Swedish massage if they decide to go back – they are not sure if they will.

Nimmi watches Ramesh out of the corner of her eye – he looks just the same. Yet, she feels that for the first time ever, she cannot read him. She gazes at the clean lines of his face and the back of his neck, where the collar of his T-shirt is awry. She notices a couple of gray hairs on his temple that she has never seen before. This is a strangely different Ramesh. A Ramesh whose eyes hide secret fantasies. Whose body carries the shadowy touch of a stranger’s hands.

She has a terrible urge to weep. To burst into tears and rage at him.

But she doesn’t. She keeps gazing out of the window. And when he asks her if they should drop by Nilgiris to stock up on provisions, she agrees. They buy five kilos of their usual sona masoori rice, packets of atta and dosa batter and the same brand of cereal as always.

But she does not fall asleep at eleven. She lies awake long after he has slept, listening to his even breathing, weeping silently for what they have lost.

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