This week’s essay is about a massage I received in Saint Petersburg, Russia from a gigantic (maybe German) guy in the basement of a sketchy apartment building. I haven’t lived in America for nearly a decade. This has led many people, who clearly don’t know me very well, to theorize that I am in the CIA or, in some way, connected to something covert. Of course, to those who do know me, this provides endless amusement. This essay is about that.
The Massage That Made Me Betray My Country
(originally published in Human Parts.)
It was winter in Saint Petersburg, so everything was dark. On a dark day, I went down a dark alley into a dark building, through a dark hallway, and settled in a dark room, where a 7-foot-tall man started laying out his instruments.
If there’d been a Russian casting call for a gigantic Nazi-looking motherfucker with meat for face, this man would have snagged the part before he’d even ducked into the room.
I took off my shirt. I laid down on the table.
He took up his first instrument from the bedside table. He placed it in his palm, so the spike jutted out from between his ring and middle finger.
“Do you speak German?” he asked in German.
“No, do you speak English?” I said in Russian.
“No,” he said in English.
He nodded. I flipped onto my stomach. He dug in.
Ten thousand miles away, in an office in L.A., my little brother sat and told one of his professors about me. His professor pondered his description over an unlit pipe and said, “He’s been traveling for 10 years, you said?”
“Yep, all over. China, Korea, Thailand, Spain. He’s in Russia now.”
His professor, I imagine, crossed one leg over another, adjusted the collar on his tweed coat, and said, “Your brother works for the CIA.”
I looked up at my assailant. How did I get here? I thought. Two days earlier, I’d been complaining about shoulder pain. I was working in a startup of sorts at an address I’m not allowed to reveal (and couldn’t if I wanted to). I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone where I worked, what I did, or — most importantly — who I worked for. That wasn’t anything to do with the CIA — just my bosses’ run-of-the-mill Russian paranoia.
Despite having nothing to do with government business, we still talked about our parent company and clients using code names dug from the pages of German literature (the CEO, obsessed with Germany, went so far as to claim that our company was based in Munich). The whole business was so juicily covert I couldn’t help but let my mind fantasize about spycraft. I began to mark the comings and goings of the homeless men outside on the streets. When they’d approach me to ask for some coins or a cigarette, I’d look into their eyes, trying to find some question, some cunning spark, something other than sickly vapor.
The woman who ran the shop down the way had a suspicious air about her — she seemed to distrust me more than my Russian colleagues. They’d buy my sodas for me since she wouldn’t sell to me unless I had exact change.
When we moved to a new office, being a startup — or more appropriately, trying to be — my bosses had thought it chic and modern to outfit the whole place with bean bag chairs. The men who dropped them off brought them up the stairs in stacks of twos and threes. I directed them around the office, following closely behind, watching for their hands to slip under tables, bugging the place. I stood casually around the corner as they set up desks and tables and shelves. When they finally left, I went back into the video production office, plopped onto one of the new bean bag chairs, and told our editor, Andrey, “I think I’d make a decent spy.”
He shook his head. Thinking I wouldn’t understand, he said, in Russian, “Stupid American.”
I smirked, sneaked one eyebrow up at him — all spy-like — and said, in Russian, “I understand you, comrade.”
Andrey rolled his eyes and then said a whole string of Russian words I didn’t catch. But still, I said, “Too, I well understand, much you say.”
Someone else in the room let out a long exasperated sigh, but it wouldn’t be long before my spy skills would be put to the test. Little could anyone have known that muscle knots are notoriously attracted to bean bag chairs.
Within two weeks my shoulders were the muscular equivalent of dreadlocks.
The mondo-Nazi took his instrument and pressed it deep into my back, where my shoulder bone met the tendons between the muscles, and I screamed. Pain like that does a lot of things to the brain — it doesn’t wipe thoughts blank like they sometimes say in books and movies. No, it vibrates the lot of them at such a blindingly high frequency that all of the little thought-atoms shatter like a bullet through a glass balloon. With only a mouth left working, unhindered by the brain, the pain forced me to talk — or rather sing. In this case, the word my mouth chose was “Motherfucker!”
“Mmmhmmm,” he said. “Hmm.” He poked around my back with his fingers, making little sounds as he went. It was a song, a sadist’s lullaby: three “hmms,” poke-poke, then the instrument. It felt like being stabbed over and over. His prods and “hmms”became ominous knocks on the door of my pain. And I thought, I would do anything in the world to make this man stop.
Back in L.A., warm and sunny L.A., a breeze knocked on the window of the office of my brother’s professor. He crossed one leg over another, tapped out a pipe, and smiled.
My brother, recovering from the shock of what his mentor just said, let the thought sink in. It sank all of the way into his belly, and he burst out laughing. He laughed so long and hard that his professor started to feel uncomfortable, closing his tweed coat, uncrossing his legs, clearing his throat, waiting until my brother caught his breath. When he finally did, he let out a humorous sigh, wiped a tear from his eye, and said, “My brother would make the worst fucking spy.”
Within 10 minutes, I realized that I would tell this man anything he asked. My mind started playing a game: Would you betray your country?Your friends?
Yes, I realized. Yes, the codes would be his. The locations of safe houses would be written in great detail on a pad of paper.
He moved onto my lower back, on either side of my tailbone, his tempo speeding up.
My friends would be dead or imprisoned.
I didn’t realize a butt could have muscle knots. Then, into my thighs he went.
My oldest brother and I never got along too well. He doesn’t have any kids. He’d go next. Betrayed.
The backs of my knees.
What about Mom and Dad?
I am a silent lover; in bed, women often ask, “Did you come?” because I make almost no sound when I do. But I started making sounds now, moans. I spit; my limbs flailed. I became intimate with the tips of his fingers. He moved his hands over my body, back and forth, “hmm, hmm, hmm,” and when he found a spot where any leftover pain might hide, he pressed and waited for me to make a noise. Then, the instrument. He’d dig in; I’d cry out. I tried to think of anything that might lie on the other end of the pain. I tried to think of my mother humming a lullaby, my father hugging me before I leave on long trips, Andrey’s severed head on the end of a long and twisted pole. And then my brain went back to torturing me with accusations:
So, you think you’re a spy? Where is your father! Where is he hiding?
I remembered in books and movies how spies and badasses resisted torture. “Take your mind away” is a big one. In The Princess Bride, Westley thinks of Buttercup. So I tried to think about my girlfriend.
Would you betray her location, you piece of shit? Tell us where she is?
I tried to push my brain away by thinking about my anger at Andrey. Trust is a currency, I thought. My trust in Andrey led me there. I trusted him, and so I took a taxi to a part of town I’d never been. I trusted him, and so I followed a man I’d never met down a set of stairs I’d never taken to a dark hall I’d never walked down to a room I’d never seen, and there, I laid down and exposed my belly to him. All because Andrey said, “You haven’t had a massage until you’ve been massaged by this guy. He’ll fix your shoulders right up.”
Trust. I had trusted. I forgot the first rule of spycraft.
My shoulders were long gone; the man was onto my ankles. He pinched around my Achilles heel and then, again, the instrument.
Sorry, Dad. Sorry, my love.
“SHIT,” I cried as the sadistic mondo-Nazi worked his instrument into the spot where my ankle met my leg.
“Heat?” he asks.
I didn’t know the answer that would make him stop — the right answer. “Yes,” I tried. He paused. He couldn’t ask, and so he simply moved me onto my back. I looked up at him. The fluorescent light panel on the ceiling behind him cast his face in shadows. I felt relieved. At least, I thought, now I’ll see it coming. I can prepare. He prodded at the fleshy bit where my arms meet my torso. He brought in the instrument. I took a breath. He worked like a surgeon. No pity, no restraint. Seeing it coming didn’t help.
I tried to run from the final question in my brain. I knew what it would be.
Where is your little brother?
I knew it was coming because I knew I would die before ever letting someone hurt him. This is a staple of my mentality about life. Death first. But no one ever said anything about pain—this pain.But still, I held on.
The mondo-Nazi held his hand over my chest; he tapped the middle, the bone. It made the sound of someone knocking on the door of the house of a man who wants to be left the fuck alone.
He shook his head.
“Hard,” he said.
He tapped the ceiling above us. He tapped the ceiling again and then tapped my chest.
“Hard,” he said, and then he said, “hmm, hmm, hmm.”
I heard the sound again. I couldn’t see his other hand, but I heard him bringing the instrument closer.
“Hard,” he said again. He placed the instrument into my chest plate.
My legs flailed, and I held my hand close to his, fighting (genuinely fighting!) him to stop, tearing at his arm. But this man, this super-soldier, did not relent, and the world of my imagination where I used to be a spy became a useless nuclear wasteland of my betrayal. Seven billion dead and gone — country, friends, family — all betrayed.
With my whole body on fire, I moaned, “So much better.”
When he finally stopped, the corners of my eyes were wet. He looked down, and I took a breath.
“Better?” he asked.
I looked up at him, and I thought, I’d make the worst fucking spy.
“Better,” I said. If it made him stop. “Better,” I cried. With my whole body on fire, I moaned, “So much better.”
He placed the instrument down. He crossed his arms and said, “Done.”
I peeled myself off the table and stood. He walked around me, instrument in hand. When he reached his bag and began to pack his things, he turned and shook the instrument at me.
“Motherfucker, yes?” he growled.
I nodded. I wiped my nose on my shirt, and said, “Yes. Motherfucker.”
Outside, I looked down at my phone and saw a text from my brother:
“Dude, you won’t believe what my professor just said.”
This was one of those rare cases where the final draft of this essays as almost identical to what ended up being published. There isn’t much in the way of deleted scenes.
I’m not just saying that because I’m a little drunk. No, you’re drunk! It wasn’t my fault. I tripped, the beer fell, it happens. It didn’t mean anything. It was just one time. Don’t leave me.
Hey, you know what Hemingway said. Write drunk, then send it to a few hundred people because fuck it. Baby shoes and all that.
Here is where my work can be found that was published in the past two weeks:
Who Does Conspiracy Theories Better? Russia or the U.S. - My latest column piece for Russia Beyond about Russian vs. American conspiracy theories…if you didn’t already know that from the title…(quiet time, Ben, go to your corner).
Amazon Alexa, My Girlfriend, and I are in a Love Triangle - A hybrid absurdist/memoir humor piece of mine published in PublicHouse Magazine.
Why Men Don’t Know How to Talk About Sex was published in Elephant Journal
Also, a piece I am quite fond of was published in P.S. I Love You called: 10 Signs That You’re Part of the Problem. It was originally titled 10 Signs You Might Be A Fucking Idiot, but that was, apparently, “a bit much.”
That’s it! That’s the week. Got some good news today so hopefully, there will be some more good stuff out there by the next newsletter.
Fuck. I need to sleep.