Free and Clear

Free and Clear

by Daryl Gregory

Warily, Edward told Margaret his fantasy.

It’s Joe Louis Arena in late August, peak allergy season. He’s in the ring with Joe Louis himself, and as Edward dances around the canvas his sinuses feel like impacted masonry. Pollen floats in the air, his eyes are watering, and everything beyond the ring is a blur. Joe Louis is looking strong: smooth glistening chest, fierce gaze, arms pumping like oil rigs. Edward wipes his nose on his glove and shuffles forward. Joe studies him, waiting, drops his guard a few inches. Edward sees his opening and swings, a sweeping roundhouse. Joe sidesteps easily and the blow misses completely. Edward is stumbling forward, off balance and wide open. He looks up as Joe Louis’ fist crashes into his face—but it’s not Joe’s normal fist, it’s the giant Joe Louis Fist sculpture that hangs from chains in downtown Detroit, and it’s swinging down, down. Two tons of metal slam into Edward’s skull and shatter his zygomatic lobe like a nut. Sinus fluid runs like hot syrup down his chest and over his silk boxing shorts.

“That’s what I like to think about the most,” Edward told her. “That hot liquid draining.”

His wife stared at him. “I don’t think I can take this much longer,” she said.

The address led them to an austere brick building in an aging industrial park.

“It doesn’t look like a massage parlor,” Edward said.

“It’s a clinic,” Margaret said. “For massage therapy.”

Edward could feel a sneeze gearing up behind the bridge of his nose. He pulled a few tissues from the Kleenex box on the dash, reconsidered, and took the whole box. “I don’t think this is going to help,” he said. It was the first line in an argument they’d performed several times in the past week. Margaret only looked at him. He sneezed. In the back seat his four-year-old son laughed.

Edward lightly kissed Margaret on the cheek, then reached over the seat to shake hands with Michael. “Be a soldier,” Edward said, and Michael nodded. The boy’s nose was running and Edward handed him a tissue.

Margaret put the car in gear. “I’ll pick you up in an hour. Good luck.”

“Good luck!” Michael yelled. Edward wished they didn’t sound so desperate.

The waiting room was cedar-paneled and heavy with cinnamon incense (heavy, he knew, because he could smell it). There was a reception desk, but no receptionist, so he sat on the edge of a wicker couch in the position he assumed when waiting—for allergists; endocrinologists; eye, ear, nose and throat specialists—his left hand holding the wad of Kleenex, his right thumb pressed up against the ridge of bone above his right eye, as if he were working up the courage to blind himself. Periodically he separated a tissue from the wad, blew into it, switched the moist clump to his other hand, and wedged his other thumb against the left eye. It was all very tedious.

A chubby white woman in a sari skittered up to him and held out her hand. “You’re Ed!” she said in a perky whisper. “How are you?”

He smoothly tucked the Kleenex under his thigh, and as he lifted his hand he ran his palm against the side of his pants, a combination hide-and-clean move he’d perfected over the years. “Just fine, thanks.”

“Would you like some tea?” she asked. “There are some cups over there you can use.”

She gestured toward the reception desk where a mahogany tree of ceramic mugs sat next to an electric teapot. What he wanted, he thought, was a syringe to force a pint of steaming Earl Grey up his nose; what he wanted was a nasal enema. He said no thanks, his voice gravelly from phlegm, and she told him that the therapist would be available in a moment, would he like to walk this way please? He followed her down a cedar-paneled hallway, tinny sitar music hovering overhead, and she left him in a dim room with a massage table, wicker chair, and a row of cabinets. A dozen plants hung darkly along the edges of the room, suspended by macramé chains.

He looked around, wondering if he should take off his clothes. His wife had read him articles about reflexology but he couldn’t remember if nakedness were one of the requirements. Once she’d shown him a diagram in Cosmopolitan: “Everything corresponds to something else, like in voodoo,” Margaret had said. “You press one spot in the middle of your foot, and that’s your kidney. Or you press here, and those are your lungs. And look, Hon.” She pointed at the toes in the illustration. “The tops of the four little toes are all for sinuses.” He asked about people with extra toes, what would those correspond to, but something interrupted—tea kettle or telephone—and she never answered.

He sat on the table rather than the chair because it was what he did in most examination rooms. When the door opened he was in the middle of blowing his nose. The masseuse was short, with frizzy brown hair. She waited politely until he was finished, and then said, “Hello, Edward. I’m Annit.” Annit? Her accent was British or Australian, which somehow reassured him; foreigners always seemed more knowledgeable than Americans.

“Hi,” he said. Her hand was very warm when they shook.

“You have a cold?” she asked sympathetically.

“No, no.” He touched the bridge of his nose. “Allergies.”

“Ah.” She stared at the place where he’d touched. The pupils of her eyes were wet black, like beach pebbles.

“Can’t seem to get rid of them,” he said finally.

She nodded. “Have you seen a doctor?” Obvious questions normally annoyed him, but her sincerity was disarming. The accent, probably.

“I’ve seen everyone,” he said. “Every specialist my insurance would cover, and a few that I paid for myself. I’ve taken every kind of pill that I’m not allergic to.” He chuckled to show he was a good sport.

“What are you allergic to?”

He paused a moment to blow into a tissue. “They don’t know, really. So far I seem to be allergic to nothing in specific and everything in general.” She stared at his nose. “Allergies are cumulative, see? Some people are allergic to cats and, say, carpet mites. But if there’s carpet mites but no cat around, they aren’t bothered. Cat plus carpet mites, they sneeze. Or six cats, they sneeze. They haven’t come up with a serum that blocks everything I’m allergic to, so I sneeze at everything.”

“For you,” she said, “it’s like there are six cats around all the time?”

“Six hundred cats.”

“Oh!” She looked genuinely concerned. She jotted something on the clipboard in her hand. “I have to ask a few other questions. Do you have any back injuries?” He shook his head. “Arthritis? Toothaches, diabetes, emphysema, heart disease? Ulcers, tumors, or other growths? Migraines?”

“Yes! Well, headaches, anyway. Sinus-related.”

She made a mark on the clipboard. “Anything else you think you should tell me?”

He paused. Should he tell her about the toe? “No,” he said.

“Okay, then. I think I can help you.” She set down the clipboard and took his hand. In the poor light her eyes seemed coal black. “Edward, we are going to do some intense body work today. Do you know what the key is to therapeutic success?” She pronounced it “sucsase.”

He shook his head. She was hard to follow, but he loved listening to her.

“Trust, Edward.” She squeezed his hand. “The client-therapist relationship is based on trust. We’ll have to work together if we’re going to affect change. Do you want to change, Edward?”

He cleared his throat and nodded. “Yes. Of course.”

“Then you can. But. Only if we trust each other. Do you understand?” All that eye contact.

“I understand.”

“Okay, Edward,” she said briskly. “Get undressed and get under the sheet. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

He quickly removed his clothes and left them folded on the floor. Should he lie face up or down? Did she tell him? Down seemed the safer choice.

He struggled with the sheet and finally got it to cover him. Then he set his face into the padded doughnut and exhaled.

Okay now, he thought. Just relax.

Almost immediately, the tip of his nose began to itch and burn. A hot dollop of snot eased out of his left nostril.

He’d left his Kleenex with his clothes.

He scrambled out of the bed, grabbed the box, and got back under the sheet. Ah, facial tissue, his addiction. Like a good junkie, he always knew exactly how much product was in the room and where it was located. While making love he kept a box near the bed. He preferred entering Margaret from behind because it kept his sinuses upright and let him sneak tissues unseen.

Edward propped himself on his elbows and blew, squeezed the other nostril shut, and blew again. He looked around for a place to toss the tissue. At work he had two plastic trash bins: a public one out in the open, and a small one hidden in the well of his desk to hold the used Kleenex. But he didn’t see a trash can anywhere in the room. Was it hidden in the cabinets?

A knock at the door. Edward pitched the tissue toward his clothes and put his head back in the doughnut. “Okay!” he called casually. He tried to arrange his arms into what he hoped looked like a natural position.

The door opened behind him and he felt her warm hand on his shoulder. “Feel free to grunt and make noises,” she said.

“What’s that?”

She peeled back half of the sheet and cool air rippled across his skin. “Make noises,” she said. “I like feedback.” He heard a liquid fart as she squirted something from a bottle, and then felt her oiled hands press into the muscles around his neck.

Well, that felt good. Should he tell her now, or wait until it got even better? And what feedback noises were appropriate?

Ropes began to unkink in his back. She used long, deep strokes for a time, then focused on smaller areas. She pressed an elbow into the muscle that run along his spine; at first it felt like she was using a steel rod, but after thirty seconds of constant pressure something unclenched inside him and the whole muscle expanded, softened. “You work at a computer?” she asked.

It took him a moment to realize it was a question, a moment more to remember how to answer. “Uh-huh,” he said. His mind had gone liquid. Grunt to give feedback, he thought.

Annit was strong for being so small. She finished his back, then rearranged the sheet to do his legs. The top half of him was loose as a fish, but from lower back to his feet he was aching with tightness. How could he not have noticed this before now? When a long stroke reached to his buttock he felt the first twinge of an erection, but then she pressed her thumbs between the muscles of his legs and he could think of nothing but the cold fire of cinched muscles stretching apart.

Time became slippery. He might have fallen asleep if it weren’t for the persistent tightness in his forehead and eyes. Still blocked. It’s what Margaret would ask as she watched him honk into a Kleenex: Still blocked? Still. Always. Margaret would circulate the house, emitting little disgusted sounds as she plucked hardened clumps of tissue from the kitchen table, from between the cushions of the couch, from inside his forgotten coffee cups. “Why don’t you take another pill?” she would ask, irritated. But Margaret was a free-breather and could not understand. Antihistamines clamped down on his nasal passages, setting up killer headaches. Psuedoephedrine only made his nose drip incessantly without ever coming close to draining his constantly re-filling reservoirs of snot. “Here, Daddy,” Michael would say, and hand him a tissue.

Annit touched his neck. “Okay, Edward,” she said very quietly. “Let’s turn over.”

She held up the sheet between them and cool air hit his skin. He rolled onto his side and had to stop himself from rolling right off the table. He shuffled his body over and Annit let the sheet settle over him like a parachute.

His nose was full and a sneeze was growing. “Could I…” He looked for the Kleenex box. “Do you have a…?”

She opened a cabinet door and steam drifted out. She handed him a warm, moist, cotton hand-towel.

“Oh no,” he said, appalled. “I couldn’t.” He talked from the back of his throat, trying to hold back the sneeze.

“This is part of the therapy, Edward. You must use the towel. No harsh paper.” She smiled and touched the back of his wrist, prompting him to lift the towel to his face. He couldn’t hold back any longer: he sneezed explosively. And again. And again.

Weakly he wiped the tip of his nose, his upper lip, and the delicate frenulum. He was ashamed, but the warm cloth felt wonderful.

Annit whisked it away from him and he leaned back into the table and closed his eyes. His nasal passages re-filled like ballast tanks, but at least the sneezing fit was over.

Long moments later Annit lifted his ankles and set them onto a pillow. She oiled his feet, working the surface tissue with firm strokes. A groan of pleasure escaped him. She had a gift. She understood his body. She knew its hidden pockets of tension, and one by one she’d burst them all.

She seemed to change her grip, and he felt a sharp prick, obviously accomplished with a metal instrument. He tensed his body, but said nothing. She stabbed him again and he nearly yelped.

With some effort he lifted his head and looked down the landscape of his body. Annit’s hands were empty. “What’s that you’re doing?” he asked. Trying to sound mildly curious.

“Reflexology,” she said, and smiled. “The note from your wife said you wanted to try this.”

“Oh.” The voodoo thing. He let his head fall back against the table and thought, maybe she won’t notice the toe.

With thumb and forefinger she held his right foot just below his ankle in a delicate grip that burned like sharpened forceps. He sucked air and waited for her to release.

“So,” he said casually, his voice tight. “What points do those correspond to?”

“The penis and the prostate.”

“Ah,” he said, as if he’d guessed as much. She continued to hold the foot. My God, he thought, my balls are on fire. After a time she shifted to his other foot, and in the three-second gap between feet a chill coursed up his spine and he thought, hey, that’s good.

“You have six toes on your left foot,” she said. “That’s wonderful.”

The words made him flush. He knew he should make a joke, ask about correspondences, but was too embarrassed to speak. Margaret disliked the extra toe, barely acknowledged its existence. She only mentioned it in public once, obliquely, in the delivery room; she looked down at Michael’s perfectly numbered digits and said, “Thank goodness he has my feet.”

Annit worked the tips of his toes, the areas the Cosmo article had linked to sinuses. Her fingers were like needles but he began to anticipate the pain and move into it. Grunt for feedback.

Annit’s voice drifted up from the other end of the table. “Do you trust me, Edward?”

Her finger punctured his small toe like a fondue fork.

“Ugh.”

Time slipped away again. He thought about Annit’s carbon-black eyes, her earnest, non-American voice: The key to therapeutic sucsase is trust. He should have told her about his daydream, about Joe Louis.

Grunt to give feedback.

Sometime later she moved to his face and massaged his cheek bones. “Urrm,” he said, a little hesitantly. She hooked her fingers into the ridges above his eye sockets, three fingers to each socket, and pulled back. Bones creaked and he sighed. She pressed her palms to each temple and squeezed; he hissed. She wedged her thumbs against his nose and pushed east, south, west, north.

“Okay, Edward,” Annit said, a little out of breath. “How are those sinuses?”

He tried to inhale through his nose: A wall. He tried to exhale and the air was forced out his mouth. “Still blocked,” he said. Despair almost choked him. He could not move.

Annit cursed softly in another language. She touched his face and he closed his eyes again. “Trust me, Edward. Trust me. Lie here for a second.”

Still blocked. Always. And the sins of the father would be passed on to the son. He could see the signs already. In the woods Michael’s eyes would water. Dusty rooms made him sneeze like his old man. “Why couldn’t he get my genes?” Margaret would say. It would have been better for the boy if he had. But a part of Edward felt… not proud, not satisfied… validated perhaps. Here was proof of lineage, distinctive as a hideous birthmark. There was something comforting in the fact that no matter how much their lives diverged—no matter if Michael grew up to be an astronaut or a drag queen—they would always share this. They would always have something to talk about.

The smell of incense was stronger. Edward opened one eye. Annit was lighting a candle on the floor a few feet beyond the table. Other candles were lit; little flames lined the walls.

“Isn’t this a bit—” He swallowed. His mouth was dry. “A bit dangerous?”

Annit looked at him. Her face was painted in thick bands of yellow and red. It took him a moment to realize that she was also naked. She held up what looked like a celery stick. “Put this in your mouth,” she said.

He opened his mouth and she wedged it in crosswise. He carefully touched it with his tongue; it tasted like bark. Annit stepped behind him. She began to chant in what sounded like B-movie American Indian: lots of vowels and grunts. Moments later her voice was joined by a loud moaning sound; when she danced into his peripheral vision he could see the stick on a rope whirling above her head. He’d seen that thing on the Discovery Channel. A… bullroarer—that’s it. Rremembering the name reassured him. He closed his eyes again.

The chanting and roaring went on for some time. It was soothing, actually, in the way that a chorus of washing machines made him sleepy in Laundromats. Grunt for feedback, she’d said. Edward hummed along with the bullroarer.

There was a knock at the door. Annit’s voice broke off and the bullroarer wound down until it clattered suddenly against the floor. He heard the chubby girl’s voice, and Annit answering in a whisper, “I need more time.”

“But his wife—”

“To hell with the wife. I’ve got a class-five chakra imbalance here.” The door closed. There was the distinctive clack of a safety bolt sliding home.

He felt Annit’s hand under his chin, and then she pulled the stick from his mouth.

He blinked up at her. “What was that you were doing?”

“Maori action dance. Very cleansing. Any luck?”

With an effort he brought his hand to his face and checked. Left nostril. Right nostril. Blocked as collapsed mine shafts. He sighed.

“Shit,” Annit said. Edward let his head fall back against the mat. He listened to her move around the room, rustling papers and muttering. The ceiling was stucco, troweled on in overlapping circular grooves. Theoretically there should be a final circle that did not overlap any of the others, but he couldn’t find it.

A sound like a window shade springing up. Edward turned his head. Annit was consulting a life-size chart of the human body that had unrolled from the ceiling. She cradled a heavy book in her left arm. “Okay,” she said. The book dropped to the floor, loud as a cannon shot. The chart snapped upward. “Turn over again, Edward.”

“I don’t think this is going to help,” he said, half to himself. He did as he was told. Annit removed the sheet completely and applied fresh oil, rubbing him deeply until he forgot his plugged nostrils and his mind began to slide sideways into the half-dreaming trance he’d attained earlier. She worked especially on his arms and legs, pressing her fingers deep into every joint from elbow to wrist, knee to ankle, and finished by wrapping each extremity in something thick and smooth. His limbs were numb. He drifted, dreaming, drowning happily. For a long time Annit didn’t touch him, leaving him alone with the squeaks of ropes and pulleys. Edward imagined elephants from the circuses of old movies, lumbering beasts dragging poles into place, hauling on ropes to pull the tents erect. Out there in the desert, in the shadow of Ayers Rock, there was a special tent going up, the arena where he and Michael were kept as freaks. Bright posters screamed SEE! SIX-TOED SINUS MAN! AND! NASAL BOY! The crowd roared as the tattooed warriors attached block and tackle to their cage and hauled it up above the audience.

Annit touched his neck. “Not that dream, Edward,” she said. “Not the false dream-time.” He heard a loud crack and suddenly he was hanging in space. He opened his eyes and found himself swinging above the floor, the massage table on its side against the wall. Several still-lit candles rolled in arcs across the floor. He tried to scream but his position made it difficult to take in air.

Annit’s voice was warm and commanding. “Edward. Edward.”

He was splayed apart, macramé ropes at each limb suspending him from the metal planter hooks. Annit, still naked, caught his shoulders and stopped his swaying. She bent down and held his face in both hands. Her eyes were even with his. “So what’s it going to be, Edward?”

His arms were easing out of their sockets. His groin muscles were taut. “Huh?”

“Don’t play stupid, Edward. What’s it going to be? Back to your miserable world? Dripping and sneezing your way through life, never three feet away from a box of Kleenex?”

He shook his head, trying to assemble his thoughts. Far away, a pounding and the sound of Margaret’s voice, calling to him.

Annit slapped him across one cheek, then gripped his jaw and tilted his face toward her. “Come on, Edward! Are you moving forward, or going back? What’s it going to BE?”

His cheek burned. He could pull out now and walk into the lobby, shaking his head and thinking, Crazy woman. Margaret would run up to him, all expectant eyebrows: Still? His son would hand him a tissue.

Edward drew a breath. “Unngah.”

Annit kissed him hard on the lips. “Okay, then.” She put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him back like a child in a swing—slowly, slowly—then back-pedaled to catch him and shove again. He closed his eyes as she worked the rhythm, feeling his arc grow by degrees heavier and steeper, his speed becoming tremendous. At the top of the arc, sinus fluid pressed to the front of his skull. As he swooped down lights crackled under his eyelids.

The pounding on the door deepened and stretched and buzzed, becoming the bass throb of the bullroarer.

“Edward!” Annit shouted, and he opened his eyes. He was at the zenith of his swing. The room was a fishbowl, walls curving out and back. Annit stood at the other end, naked except for her right arm, which was sheathed from elbow to fist in gleaming chrome. The gauntlet was medieval in design, covered with overlapping plates and studded with inch-long spikes, and seemed to end in too many fingers.

Annit stood waiting for him, legs apart and arm cocked, her eyes locked fiercely on his own.

She was braced for him. She could take him, if he trusted her.

He nodded—in agreement, in surrender, in benediction—and fell into her, swinging down, down, like two tons of metal.

Something furry brushed his cheek. He breathed deep, taking in a dense wave of unfamiliar scents, and opened his eyes.

He lay on his stomach, arms and legs spread, sunk deep in the grasses of a sunlit field. He turned his head. The cat, a white Persian with blue eyes, rubbed its forehead along his brow, marking him with its scent glands. He stroked the cat’s back, and it arched into him, purring. A second cat butted against him, and a third, and a dozen more.

He got to his feet, careful not to tread on tails and paws. The prairie stretched for miles in all directions, a green ocean of Bermuda grass and Kentucky bluegrass and brilliant ragweed, swirling with rust and orange eddies of redtop and sagebrush. The plain stirred with the movements of furred animals: long-haired cats, thick-ruffed dogs, sleek-coated mammals he couldn’t name.

In the distance was a massive slump of naked rock, glowing pink in the sunlight. It was the flat-topped mountain he’d seen in his dream.

Annit walked to him through a stand of towering pigweed, her hair wild, her skin still vividly painted. Michael held her hand, talking excitedly, and when she gestured to Edward the boy shouted happily and ran to him. Edward scooped him up and swung him around. The boy’s eyes were clear and dry. His nasal drip had disappeared.

Annit stood a small way off, smiling.

“Where are we?” Edward said.

A breeze touched his face and he inhaled deeply through wide-open nasal passages. The air was heavy with dense floral bouquets, earthy molds, and the pungent musk of thousands and thousands of cats.

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