For a decade and a half I suffered from nerve twinges and occasional numbness in my right arm and shoulder. Nothing seemed to help. One sorry attempt at homeopathy years ago brought only yellow pee from ingesting great gobs of Vitamin B-something. But having just turned 55, and sensing more than ever my body falling apart, I finally decided to do something about my condition.

The American health care system does things bass-ackwards, so physical therapy was ordered only after three doctors and two labs billed Empire Blue Cross like there’s no tomorrow for MRIs, X-Rays, EMGs that showed a perfectly healthy man. Mirabile dictu, the PT started helping the problem, cheaply and quickly. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, though. One piece of neuralgia on the mend, and another cropped up. But a different sort of pain in a very different place.

Physical therapy at the local sports medicine gym is an out-of-body experience for an older, middle-aged man. This was my third stretch at a site that will remain anonymous to protect the innocent. A dispensary where the clinicians are mostly young, attractive women creates much more customer loyalty in a guy like me than free samples of some miracle energy drink. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth is the Bible for what goes on when you pass through the door.

There I lay on a cushioned table, a soft pillow under my neck or knees, being ministered to with a caring smile, a Girl Friend Experience par excellence. But all legitimate, this quality of mercy. Submitting to Kate felt a bit like the first weeks of dating someone new: the novelty of exploring what we’ve in common, what to appreciate about each other, feeling the spark that physical closeness induces. But it was a paid encounter, nonetheless, as she twisted my neck from side to side, a sweet bit of imaginary brothel-breath making my nostrils flare.

Fantasy fastened its iron-clad grip. My age, my wrinkles, all time disappeared: Perhaps Kate lingered a bit longer than necessary as her soft hands gently torqued my cervical spine, the glint of her wedding band catching my eye. Perhaps her pendulous breasts brushed against my chest on purpose. Perhaps I ought to see my psychiatrist twice a week. And maybe I’d just roll off the table and die. All around me visions floated, soft rock oldies on Sirius Radio pulsing blood through my veins, with no where to go.

Customer relations dictate that the young women in the PT gym flirt a little, talk playfully, make favorable comments about a man’s clothing or muscle turgor. I used to fall, a willing victim. This time not, though, not so easy. Kate said something just a bit weird. She meant nothing by it, said it unknowingly. A single rich moment made up of two words.

Session One: I showed up as instructed, a sleeveless athletic T-shirt clothing my upper torso to optimize shoulder manipulation. I own very few of these garments, and none plain white, so I wore a threadbare tie-dyed edition, one precious to me that my two grown daughters created on our country house porch one summer day many years ago.

There I lay, baby-faced 27-year old Kate bending above me, her colleague Tara doing someone else next to me. Delicate voices, grace and beauty. A peep-show of Heaven where I’ll never be. Kate was pleasant looking and cheerful, hail fellow well met, but Tara was something else: broad shouldered, slender, long dark blonde hair, subtly streaked, high-voiced but reticent. Her symmetrical features and broad brow belied a touch of Cherokee blood, adding a masculine cast to her beautiful face. Tara rarely made eye contact with me, thank goodness. Something told me she knew I’m weak-kneed, and keeping a safe distance seemed the best thing to do. I’m actually grateful. One extra polite word from her might have decked me for good.

Was the delicious tension permeating the air totally a figment of my dementia? Sex seemed to rule all over this land. The older female clients assigned to the hunky young men who work there are clearly pleased, while the older guys like me enjoy the opposite assignments more than a chocolate milk shake. This time around, though, the contrarian in me decided to kick the ball back. Kate said what she said and I took the upper road.

“Get a load of Ben’s tie-dyed wife-beater,” Kate chirped to her buddy Tara. “It’s so cool, that 60s style.” I wonder if Kate noticed as my body tensed, the grimace in my eyes when she used those words for my shirt. Stanley Kowalski made the fashion famous, though the appellation is absent from Streetcar’s script. Tara mumbled something in polite acknowledgement. I wonder what thoughts were going through her mind. I’d give long odds that they were far from mine.

Sometime about thirty years ago or so, these sleeveless undershirts began being called tank tops. It’s much more recent that “wife-beater” became au courant. Perhaps some Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ play caused some wag to coin the term. That domestic violence has become cute and trendy utterly boggles my imperfect mind. The prevailing storm may never let up: through John Bobbit and OJ, the sicko term has stuck. It’s cool to wear this badge of rage. During the 80s, hitting women (and being hit by men) staked its claim on 7th Avenue, hard by the Gucci ads in the Times Sunday magazine with smack-snorting models wearing $1000 belts cinched tight around their necks.

Of late I’ve decided to let things stew a bit before I shoot off my eager mouth. I tucked it away, my discomfort at Kate’s words, knowing full well what I already thought of them. Should I tell her, school her a bit? This could wait while I thought it over, with the uneven power dynamic. What would be the point? The customer is always right. She couldn’t have a free-wheeling exchange of ideas with me. Stewing in my own juices, knowing I’d be detected with impure thoughts: perhaps calling her to task could drive away the darkness and my shame.

Poor Kate: I don’t think she knew what hit her. Three days later I come waltzing back in, clad in a newly acquired, plain white version of the garment in question. There I lay for our second encounter, she chirping along in her too-friendly banter, playing me like a bongo drum. Mr. Supposed Nice Guy piped up soon, all tentative and asking, like he fantasizes all women love. “I couldn’t decide whether to say anything or not about this, so I talked to my wife about it and I’m gonna take a chance.” Kate startled a bit. Uh-oh crossed her face. But she knew she had to stand there and smile, rain or shine.

“I was thinking about what you called my t-shirt the last time I was here, Kate. Maybe you don’t even remember. It was a nice compliment you were trying to pay.” The look in her face told me Kate remembered every word. New client, you pay attention. “That name, ‘wife-beater’ – Maybe it sounds cool? But think for a minute, what’s cool about that? I don’t mean to criticize you. I’ve used those words myself to call that shirt. But I stopped when I thought about it. And you should, too. It says not so good things about you, about some kind of club you’re trying to be a member of. Just think for a minute, what’s so cool? What fashion does it embody, that ugly term? If you know anyone who’s been beaten by their boyfriend or husband or sometimes even their wife, then you’ll think twice about using this name.” Kate got an earful and turned on a dime. No more flirting. Fire with fire worked like a charm. It was a stretch to reach the higher ground. But try she did, ‘til my third time at bat.

In I bopped for my next session, feeling all self-righteous, wondering just how much Kate would squirm when we met. “Hey, buddy, how’s it going.” Kate started out. Now we were strictly man-to-man. A firm handshake, a deeper tone more suited to a boxing coach, Kate had switched gears to the only other one she knew. “Hey, I told everyone here about what you said and we all agreed to call them tank tops. No more ‘wife-beater,’ is that OK ?” No one else in the place had the nerve to look me in the eye that morning after Kate piped up so very loud. Tara stared at the floor though she stood nearby. Not a glance, not a word, her silent complicity in the event now forgotten. My guess at her two cents with those gimlet eyes: “Whatever, another kook-shit horny guy. A carom shot from an old, bent cue.”

It didn’t last long, though, Kate’s chastened approach. Hormones trump all for the vast majority. My addled brain has forgotten how long: it might have been later that very same day. Kate and her crew are not personal trainers. They do three or four clients at the same time. In between bursts of personal attention, I take a turn on the bikes, the Universal, the column strapped with therabands. Sometimes Kate and her co-workers take a short back-office break. After my allotted eight minutes on stationary wheels, I dismounted. Next to me yawned a wide open door to where Kate and her friends were enjoying a basket of fresh-cut fruit on wooden sticks, delivered that morning from a source unknown. Catching my eye, Kate instantly offered me the sweetest morsel, a skewer of fresh pineapple running with juice. “Where’s the fruit from?” I inquired.” “It’s from my secret admirer,” Kate shot back. “I’m not going there,” I meekly replied. But had she served or was this a volley? It doesn’t matter: we both love the game.

That was enough of a round for me, though, and I dropped my racquet on the floor. I’d rather talk to my shrink about it than play for keeps on an uneven court. It’s the moments that matter, the puzzle of parsing, that intrigue me the most. Not the simple handling of toys. Gym-porn has meaning, the power to inspire. One can belittle oneself and those around you, join a club whose admission criterion consists of merely having been born of woman. Or you can use the same banter to teach and learn.

There’s really no happy medium between two strangers. I took the high road, at least for a while. Between a rock and a hard place: I’ll totter along. There beside me stride Blanche and Stella. Each found their way with Stanley K. Not so certain, we stumble and totter. Kate and I have far to go.

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