Cape Odd Couple

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

Chaz wonders: Exactly what does Janie see in him? OK, besides the fact he’s a longtime paying customer. Has to be more than that, the way it’s evolved into far more than a massage, far more even than your standard run-of-the-mill erotic massage. Well, he’s healthy and fit, as far as it goes, serious about his vegan diet, no cigarettes in 15 years, no alcohol or hard drugs in 10 (an occasional hit of ganja, sure, but no harm in that). And he regularly goes to a gym, where he pumps his arms and legs to a hard bop beat as he runs and sweats on a track to nowhere. But he’s also 63, balding and jowly and acne-scarred. Thickets of hair that would look better on his chest or scalp sprout on his shoulders and back. And he’s largely uncommunicative (thank the gods Janie is so intuitive) and takes forever to get aroused (thank the gods Janie is so patient) and, all in all, in the words of Edgar, his perpetually angry 38-year-old philosophy professor son from the first of his five marriages, “a pathetic old man.” Imagine if Edgar knew about the escapes from Boston to Cape Cod, to Janie’s cottage in Wellfleet.

Janie, 13 years younger than Chaz, remains uninhibited in practicing what she preaches (and advertises online):

“Relax. Be nurtured. Touched. Healed. Sacred space. Good for what ails ya. Enjoy.”

A touch of class, Chaz thinks. Clever, subversive, funny. Genuine turn-on. Not like the trashy massage ads out of Boston. They don’t get it. Janie, though, she gets it. She gets how, when it’s over and nothing is going on, there’s a fleeting moment of silence worth embracing, like when a perfect piece of music ends. She gets how it’s about soulfulness. About presence. And ritual. It’s about being truly touched, massage almost beside the point.

Janie smiles when she thinks about the history of her ad. Back in the mid-90s, after her brief but lucrative run as an escort ended with a spot of jail time in Chicago and she needed to supplement the income from her arts and crafts projects and her dancing and yoga instruction and spiritual counseling, she ran her massage ad in newspapers, among dozens of other massage ads. But newspapers eventually got all righteous, said massage ads weren’t welcome anymore, said the kind of massage offered in most of the ads wasn’t legit, was really a form of prostitution. What hypocrites. Well, fast-forward some 15 years and she’s still in business, thriving actually, at least during the tourist season, running her ad online for a fraction of what the metro papers charged. And now those papers are dying, their classified sections having gone from fat and sassy to scrawny and starving, like something you’d see from the Third World on TV at three in the morning and feel terrible about and turn away from.


Spring 2010

Janie touches his bare shoulder and whispers.

“Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go.”

Chaz, naked, flat on his back, blinking, emerges from a fog of satisfaction.


“Reality. It bites,” Janie says. “Or so I’ve heard.”

“You’re dressed already?”

She stands before him covered from clavicle to ankles in a floral print cotton spring dress. Barefoot. Fifty minutes ago, Chaz was on his knees, kissing those bare feet, with their lavender-colored toenails.

“My work here is done,” Janie says. She winks and stares at him. Out of character now, her face looks more furrowed than fresh, a bit puffy around her no-longer-playful eyes, which are closer to purple than blue. For Chaz, also out of character now, antsy self-consciousness replaces sensual oblivion. No longer can he ignore his to-do list: two-hour commute, make sure to eat something, four-hour shift, call home, call Social Security and check in with the guy at the musicians union.

“I’ll start the shower for you,” Janie says, and she saunters away, her straight, graying blonde hair falling to just below her shoulders. Chaz looks away. He’s out of that comfort zone now, out of the arousal zone, too, already in a prosaic space. He’s a man who’s fallen back to Earth’s tedium.

He bolts to his feet, grabs his underwear from the weathered gray felt-covered couch and steps past the cramped kitchen on the right and the closed-door bedroom on the left, toward the back of Janie’s Cape Cod cottage, toward the bathroom—a large space with toilet and shower and sink and sunken bathtub and plants galore and shelves with scented soaps and candles and a wood-burning stove and wicker chairs and a coffee table with yoga magazines and a baggie with a couple of joints’ worth of marijuana. There are some of Janie’s own handmade crafts, too, necklaces and bracelets, and a seashell-cum-bong. Indie, an old Aussie sheep dog, curls by the back door, and his eyes—one brown, one blue—barely open, send a who-gives-a-damn vibe.

Janie hands a towel to Chaz and disappears back into the main room of her cottage—the room with the couch and massage table and massage paraphernalia, an end table, Buddhist altar, television, CD and DVD player and laptop, shelves crammed with books about feminism and ancient matriarchies and Eastern explorations of sexuality and DVDs of the TV series “Weeds” and “Desperate Housewives” (Janie calls them her “guilty pleasures”). And there is her work table, with stacks of her photos and drawings—mostly of coastal birds and the Provincetown dunes, and a few nudes of her friends Renee and Trish. Chaz has told her he sees real talent there. She has to admit she likes the compliment, and it seems sincere. But with clients you never know.

While Chaz showers, Janie locks into post-massage mode. She pushes curtains aside and opens windows—in with the fresh spring air, out with the musty aroma of cherry incense. She tosses the used sheets and towels and pillow cases into a hamper and places the tantric gong out of sight. She makes sure the massage table and body oils and fresh sheets and washcloths and pillows and a new stick of incense—this time patchouli, an oldie but goodie—are neatly in place, the stage set for the next act. She cues up the New Age music. What she does is performance art, Janie tells herself. Another performance will begin not long after Chaz leaves, although it will be back to basics. No frills. Rub-a-dub-dub and thank you, bub. She’ll be back in character, sure, but the next performance won’t include the swaying hips or the cannabis-coated breathy voice of quasi-mystical chants and randy commands. It won’t include the tantric gong, either, or improvisational offers of sensual succor. Those are extras. Those are for Chaz.

Earlier, Janie teased Chaz.

“With you I feel like I’m half shaman, half dominatrix.”

“A shamanatrix,” he said, and their simultaneous cackles died instantly, the spontaneity too intimate for comfort.

Janie thinks about canceling her next appointment, driving to Great Barrington instead, spending time with her mother at the nursing home. A visit is overdue. But it’s such a schlep and it means dealing with her sister, Wendy, who thinks she knows Janie so well but doesn’t know her at all, and it means dealing with her mother, who knows Janie better than Janie knows herself but no longer recognizes either of her daughters. A visit can wait. Maybe next week.

Water from the high-pressure shower pelts the sage-green tiles, making a sound reminding Chaz of soft static that sometimes escapes, on-air, during his twice-weekly gig playing classic bebop recordings at a radio station in Boston. In a previous life, vinyl records featuring Chaz on vibes were played there. In his current life, he’s a part-time DJ, more or less a charity case.

Chaz luxuriates in the shower’s steam, amazed by his good fortune—an hour with a woman of erotic temperament and natural, unglamorous beauty, notwithstanding the circular Indian cobra tattoo, about the size of a quarter, just below her navel. The serpent’s proper name is Naja naja, according to Janie, “a big deal in Hindu mythology.” Pure escape is hard to find, harder to maintain. Chaz ought to know. But he’s found it, a monthly version of it, anyway. The relationship with Janie is going on four years. Longer than three of his marriages.

Done with the shower, drying off, Chaz recognizes the sounds of Clarence Clemons’ tenor sax floating through the cottage, the simplest notes articulating solitude and spirituality. He gave the Clemons “Peacemaker” CD to Janie last month, as a gift for her 50th birthday and an alternative to “Biomusique,” the Lisbeth Scott New Age CD Janie always plays when they’re together. Chaz comes to appreciate Lisbeth Scott’s ethereal vocals, he admits. But nothing except “Biomusique” for four years? Enough is enough. He’s glad to hear Janie playing Clemons’ “Peacemaker.”

Chaz walks back into the main room of the cottage in his underwear, dresses quickly, doesn’t bother to button his black denim shirt, slips on battered sandals. He grabs his glasses and wallet from the end table next to the couch. Secures his sweat-stained replica 1948 Boston Braves cap on his head. Fastens sunglasses over his regular glasses. Ah, insular again.

Janie glances at the altar by the couch, at the “offering” of two $100 bills from Chaz an hour earlier.

“I made as much in the last hour as I will on any day this weekend,” Janie says.

“What’s going on this weekend?” Chaz hates small talk but feels he should make an effort.

“Catering job Friday night in Orleans,” she says and rolls her eyes. “Selling my jewelry and art Saturday, street festival in Chatham. Dancing, Renee and Trish and I, our triplets belly-dancing act, Sunday. P-town fair.”

“Well, that’s all good, no? Busy.”

“You’re right. I shouldn’t complain. I really shouldn’t. It’s just hard work. All-day gigs, on my feet all the time. It’ll be fun. It will. But I’ll be fucking exhausted.”

Chaz reaches into his jeans for a couple of twenties, a tip. He does that when things go particularly well with Janie. He likes showing his appreciation. But he hesitates.

“And I paid as much for the last hour as I will make at the station this week.”

Chaz figures she should understand by now he’s not one of her well-heeled Cape Cod tourist clients. The twenties remain in his pocket. He gives her his best deadpan expression before speaking.

“Actually, shouldn’t I get a … senior citizen discount?”

“You’re joking, right?”

“Loyal client. Sixty-three years old. You don’t think I deserve a discount?”

“You’re not joking.” Janie stares, as frosty as P-town in January, before softening into the slightest of grins. “Sure. And we can go back to massage. Straight. No fun and games.”

Chaz fails to suppress a sheepish smile.

“OK, yes, I’m joking,” he says, reaching back into his jeans, then adding forty dollars to the two hundred. “But I’m a starving artist, too, you know. In my own way.” He is, after all, still devoted to what Edgar calls dead drug addicts’ music, even getting a gig now and then.

“We’re simpatico,” Janie says.

Their eye contact emanates warmth, but wariness, too. The money talk, even jokingly, or half-jokingly, leaves them on shaky ground. Janie takes Chaz’s hands in hers and holds them out in front of her. They maintain this pose, looking as if they’re shyly making peace offerings to each other. Chaz looks at her fingers—long, slender—45 minutes ago he was sucking each one, including the thumbs, especially the thumbs. What a rush. Now he waits to be set free.

With her right thumb and middle finger, Janie turns the wedding band on the ring finger of his left hand, then let’s go. Chaz keeps the ring on when he’s with Janie because he figures symbolic faithfulness is, well, symbolic. It’s not nothing. It’s something. Janie is curious, increasingly so, but not enough to ask questions or make comments.

“See you next month? Same day, same time?”

“I’ll be here,” Janie says. “You’re always welcome, Chaz. You know that.”

Janie frowns.

“But of course call or text a day or two ahead,” she says. “Like always. To make sure.”

Chaz nods. Time to part. They embrace chastely, briefly, a pantomime of insincerity.

Chaz leaves the cottage, walks to his car.

Janie delights in having seen Chaz. He’s a gentle soul. Not the typical client. Kind of special, actually, she has to admit, hard to say why, exactly. She certainly treats him special. Funny how that’s developed over the years. And she always finds his mute, sad-eyed gratitude so damn cute and cuddly. Similar look Indie gives her after a long walk and big crap in the woods. Almost four years. Wow. Never had a long-term client this long term. How can you know things about someone that no one else knows and still hardly know that person? This Marc Arnold Chacsytz. Jazzman Chaz when he’s on the air.

As for Chaz, he’s always glad to enter Janie’s cottage, always glad to leave. And always excited to think about the next time. It’s his current addiction, having this secret identity. Mild mannered jazzman able not to leap tall buildings but able to slip into this surreal relationship as easily as he used to slip into a Pharaoh Sanders composition. And really, what’s the harm? Still, he should try to abstain for six or eight weeks. Demonstrate willpower. Besides, the expense is an issue. And the long drives in his Honda Civic (167,000 miles on it and counting) from Boston to Wellfleet and back to Boston are losing appeal. Not quite the pre-escape, post-escape adventure trips anymore. If Janie didn’t live so far out on the Cape … oh, willpower, his ass. He’s spending money on therapy, he tells himself, and it makes him feel good, which is what therapy is supposed to do, right? It’s working. Which is a hell of a lot more than those psycho-babble support-group gabfests gave him all those years. And, not to put too fine of a Clintonian point on it, but it can be said, if looked at in a certain oblique manner, he has not had sexual relations with this woman. Intimacy without intercourse. Yeah, man. It’s therapy. It’s so cool, it’s hot. The avant-jazz logic is Sun Ra to his ears.

Again Janie thinks about canceling her next appointment. She feels like playing hooky. It’s only mid-afternoon. Thank the guiding spirits it’s spring again. Her favorite season. Time of renewal. Maybe take a walk in the woods, hike Great Island Trail all the way to the beach, lose herself in nature. Maybe call Renee and Trish, see what they’re up to, get a rehearsal in, drink some white wine, smoke some weed, laugh long and loud, share deep thoughts about global warming and genetically modified food. Or maybe drive to Harvard Square, hang out, find a soulmate, or at least a sweetheart, fall in love. Why not? It’s happened before.

Gnawing on her fingernails, Janie checks her messages and calendar. Busy season, followed by summer, even busier season. Too late to cancel that next appointment. No rest for the weary.


Autumn 2010

Chaz touches Janie’s forehead, like a parent soothing a feverish child, and he whispers.

“Hey, sleeping beauty, time for me to start your bath before I turn back into a frog.”

Janie, naked, flat on her back, grins, emerges from a fog of satisfaction.

“You’re a natural, Chaz. All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you. Yes, a bath. Mmm. Perfect.”

He stands naked and blushing before her. Janie’s compliment seems sincere, although he knows with women you never know. But even if she’s faking it, she’s so convincing, it’s the kind of acting that transcends pretense, like Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.

“I’ve told you. It’s my pleasure,” he says. And it truly is, maybe more than he’s ever felt, that’s what’s so absurd. Maybe he is a pathetic old man. Imagine if his perpetually angry philosophy professor son knew he was now paying to give a massage instead of getting one.

Chaz steps toward the bathroom.

“Wait,” Janie says, her blue-almost-purple eyes still playful. She bolts to her feet, takes three long strides to the CD player, removes “Biomusique,” inserts something else and pushes the volume much higher.

It’s Patti Smith covering “Are You Experienced?”—simultaneously a spot-on imitation of Jimi Hendrix and yet investing the song with her own feminine sensibility and energy. From the first beat, Janie improvises dreamy hip-swaying, leg-lifting, arm-waving movements that look to be an improbable combination belly dance and slow-motion Irish jig. Somehow, it’s perfectly in sync with the music and provocatively complements the lyrics.

“If you can just get your mind together

then come on across to me.

We’ll hold hands and then we’ll watch the sunrise …”

“Whoo-wee!” Janie bellows as she sways to the music. “Whoo-wee!”

She motions for Chaz to join her. He demurs. She motions more insistently. He joins her, awkward at first. She continues to dance, or sway, shouts one more “Whoo-wee!” and loses herself in the movements, in the music, in Patti Smith’s husky vocals.

“… So, are you experienced?

Have you ever been experienced? …”

Chaz upgrades his dance movements, not quite matching Janie but coming close. He is, after all, a musician. He’s got a clue about rhythm.

And so, naked, they dance. Face-to-face, back-to-back, side-by-side. Finally, after four minutes and forty-four seconds, Patti Smith’s “Are You Experienced?” ends. They are sweating, breathing hard, smiling, making eye contact discreetly, breaking it, making it again, breaking it again.

Janie turns off the CD player, takes her robe from the couch.

“Now, please be a dear, and start my bath,” she says while lightly placing the fingertips of her right hand on his lips before wrapping herself in the robe. Chaz obeys, walks to the bathroom in the rear of the cottage. Indie, curled up by the back door, opens his bi-colored eyes and flashes Chaz the who-gives-a-damn look, then closes his eyes again.

Janie sits on the couch, close to the altar where some 45 minutes earlier Chaz placed his note, inside one of her own hand-crafted cards, the cover of which is a photograph of Provincetown in winter, desolate and snowbound yet somehow alluring, along with his “offering” of $250—two one-hundred dollar bills and a fifty. She reaches into a pocket of her robe, removes a baggie and some papers and rolls a joint.

It started as a joke, or sort of a joke, some three months earlier, on a humid, 90-degree day in July, the height of the tourist season, three weeks after her mother died in her sleep at the nursing home in Great Barrington, two weeks after her last “screw you”-ending conversation with Wendy at a Pittsfield diner, over stale bagels and boiled coffee. She felt particularly weary and achy during Chaz’s usual session. After his shower, as he walked into the main room of the cottage, Janie impulsively said, “OK, now it’s my turn,” just for a laugh, mostly, not really expecting anything.

But, sure enough, Chaz gave her a full-body massage. Yeah, he was nervous, hurried, knowing he’d have to haul ass back to Boston to make it to the station on time. And he used too much oil, spilling some on the Honolulu blue rug that covers a portion of the hardwood floor.

“That’s unforgivable,” she said, at first annoyed but then, when she saw the remorse in Chaz’s eyes, easily teased him. “You’ll have to be punished. We’ll have to think of something appropriate. Or maybe something … inappropriate.” And, yes, she had to frequently interrupt whatever rhythm he managed to generate and give him pointers (“more pressure on the shoulders, Chaz,” and “don’t be afraid to get at the inner thighs, it’s supposed to be sensual, you know”). But, all things considered, not bad, not bad at all.

The real surprise came the following month, when, instead of beginning their usual session, Chaz presented Janie with a note (in elaborate, John Hancock-like handwriting, no less) inside one of her own hand-crafted cards, a drawing of an abandoned wooden canoe rotting away on the shore, half in the water, half out:

Allow me to give you a massage. At first, maybe it won’t be much, but with your guidance, I’ll improve. It will be my pleasure.

And so Janie allowed it, and she gave him instructions (on-the-job training is how she thought of it) and he improved. And that became their monthly routine.

Janie lights the joint, takes a hit, gets up off the couch and walks to the rear of the cottage, where Chaz has the wood-burning stove going and her bath nearly ready, hot and bubbly. Indie ambles over, sniffs at the joint.

“None for you,” Janie says while rubbing the dog’s head. “None for you, either,” she says to Chaz. “You’ll be on the road in 15 minutes. Not a good idea.”

“Just one hit,” Chaz says.

“Just one hit,” Janie says, offering the weed.

Chaz raises his hands, palms facing out, yielding.

“No. You’re right. Not a good idea right now. I’ll pass.”



“Good boy.”

They continue their new routine, Janie sinking into the hot bubble bath, Chaz taking a thick oversized sponge and gently washing her back and shoulders, her neck, under her chin, under her arms, between her breasts.

Janie closes her eyes and drifts into a reverie about trust, and risk, and luck, about her hard-earned life of freelance freedom, as an artist and artisan who has swum in the Atlantic and surfed in the Pacific and backpacked in the Grand Canyon and meditated in India. Not without costs in loneliness and heartbreak, estrangements and disappointments. The price for living, she figures. Everyone pays it, one way or another. Even the righteous. Even Wendy. But what about this present moment, this luxury of surrender? Better that it’s transient. Any other way just wouldn’t do. But this? Right here? Right now? With Chaz? This ain’t bad. This is OK. This is good.

Janie has confided in Renee and Trish, told them about this Jazzman Chaz, her long-term monthly client, and how their sessions have evolved, or flip-flopped, or whatever it is their sessions have done. Renee expressed alarm, said Janie was making herself unnecessarily, dangerously vulnerable, reminded Janie about Becca Boggs, a 44-year-old massage therapist whom they had known casually, who was killed earlier in the year in her Back Bay studio by a 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate, theology no less, who had been a semi-regular client. Some sort of perverse jealousy, wasn’t it? Or was it about money?

Janie listened to Renee’s concern, knew it was authentic, knew the potential danger is real, but when she visualizes Chaz and their sessions, she senses no threat.

“This guy is an old soul, a true gentleman,” Janie had said, trying to make light of the whole issue, if it even was an issue. “Besides, why would I want to give up such a deal? The old dude gives good hands.”

Trish saw it differently.

“Let me see if I’ve got this,” she had said. “You get a decent massage that’s improving each time, and you get paid? Well, yeah, what’s not to like? Except … how can you really relax, really enjoy it? It’s more than a little creepy, don’t you think? Maybe he thinks you’ll be his girlfriend. Maybe one day he won’t pay but will still want to play.”

“Maybe,” Janie had said, then immediately changed her mind. “No. No, not creepy. Sure, he likes his fantasies. But no, not creepy. It is what it is. I accept it.”

Janie exaggerated a wide-eyed expression, lowered her voice to a guttural tone and mimicked Patti Smith channeling Mick Jagger.

“Rape, murder!

It’s just a shot away

It’s just a shot away …

… If I don’t get some shelter

Oh yeah I’m gonna fade away!”

“OK, let me ask you this,” Trish had said. “Would you still do this if he didn’t pay?”

“No fucking way,” Janie said. Especially now, in the off-season.

She and Trish and Renee had giggled like schoolgirls.

But now, as she luxuriates in the bath, Janie tries to imagine, just for a moment, being with Chaz, strictly personal, no business. Stop, she tells herself. Don’t play the fool. Don’t press your luck.

When Janie steps out of the bath, Chaz hands her a towel, and he helps her dry off, another aspect of their new routine. Then he takes a shower, all the while thinking he digs it, this crazy-good arrangement. He dries off, walks into the main room of the cottage. Janie stands before him, already dressed in black jeans and a maroon radio-station promotional sweatshirt with the words Jazzmen do it with good vibes on the front—a gift from Chaz.

“Looks good on you,” he says.

“Thank you, kind sir.”

He speedily dresses, dons his retro 1948 Boston Braves cap and looks forward to the long drive back to Boston in the fading slanting sunlight of mid-afternoon. Man, there’s nothing like autumn in New England.

Janie smiles, takes his hands in hers, holds them in front of her. She looks into his eyes, her smile genuine and holding steady. She absentmindedly turns his wedding ring with the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. She shifts her gaze from his eyes to their hands.

“So,” she says. “How’s your marriage?”

Chaz frowns, looks wide-eyed past Janie, at nothing, then looks down at the rug, studies its blueness, tries to act cool, tries to roll with these suddenly offbeat notes. Fails. He’s lost the rhythm. The cottage suddenly feels drafty, the wood-burning stove gone cold.

“Sorry,” Janie finally says, but she doesn’t sound all that sorry. “None of my business. I’m curious, that’s all. We know each other a long time and …”

“Yes. A long time.”

Stalemate. Silence.

“None of my business.” She mimes locking her lips and throwing away the key.

More silence.

They offer little personal information over four years—an unspoken understanding. Or misunderstanding. Chaz knows he should give Janie the usual polite hug and exit. Look forward to next month. Or not. The issue of expense isn’t gone, in fact is worse, weighs on him.

“If it were perfect, I wouldn’t be here,” he says.

“If what were perfect?”

Chaz stares at Janie, exasperated. No way is he going to say “my marriage.”

More silence. Chaz finally speaks.

“It works on a lot of levels, but …”


“Nothing. Nothing.”

“It’s not nothing,” Janie says. “It’s something. Talk about it.”

“What is this, a therapy session?”

If the quarter-size Naja naja tattooed just below Janie’s navel could hiss, it would sound like their simultaneous nervous titters escaping through their clenched teeth. But the sound dies, the spontaneity embarrassing in its intimacy. Silence, cold and claustrophobic, returns. Janie wishes she kept her mouth shut, got Chaz out the door. Now she wants to move on, meet with Trish and Renee, make plans for a winter trip to Maui. A week in paradise, something they’ve been wanting to do forever. Maybe this time they’ll go. Although money is tight at the moment.

“Well,” Janie says, “I’m going to make you late for work.”

“It’s OK,” Chaz says, sounding as flat as a blue note.

Chaz leaves Janie’s cottage (no farewell hugs this time, insincere or otherwise) and hits the road, failing to observe the colorful glory of New England autumn.

Janie walks to the bathroom. Indie perks up, wags his tail, senses an imminent long walk and big crap in the woods. Janie ignores the dog, kneels at the wood-burning stove, adds a bit of old newspaper and kindling to the ashes and half burned-out pieces, lights it, waits, throws in a bigger piece, rubs her hands and arms, hugs herself.

Robert Rubino has published creative nonfiction in Hippocampus Magazine, fiction in Elysian Fields Quarterly and prose and poetry in The Esthetic Apostle. For more than thirty years he was a daily editor and weekly columnist at newspapers in California. He lives in Palo Alto, California.

Appears In

Issue 6

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