Fiction

No body

The morning after they arrived in Bali, they lounged by the pool. The sky was overcast and a chorus of insects rose and fell cyclically like a water sprinkler in the background.

“What are you doing?” he asked her, peeking out from the T-shirt he’d laid over his face and pointing to her phone.

“Checking my work emails,” she said, attempting to sound purposeful, unashamed.

He dropped the shirt back over his face. “You should go and have a massage.”

Should is a funny word to bring on holiday.”

“So are work and emails.”

She ignored him, but only because she knew he was right.

“I meant you could go and have a massage,” he corrected. “If you wanted to.”

She was resistant to the idea. Something about a person labouring over the act of rubbing her body seemed to imply her body was at the centre of the narrative and their body was secondary, less important. She believed no body should be secondary.

Her sister, a “life coach” who also offered something called “past life regression therapy”, had once confessed that most of her clients just wanted to be told they’d once lived as royalty. They wished to be elevated above the masses. In fact, nine different clients had left their first session convinced they were Cleopatra in a past life. She could not relate to these clients of her sister. If there were lives her soul had lived before, she was certain this was the most opulent: certain, because they were staying in the kind of hotel where every plate was garnished with a lotus flower hand-carved out of a carrot; certain, because she felt constant guilt.

“What will you do today?” she asked him.

“There’s a temple I want to visit.”

He had a deep interest in other people’s places of worship, an interest they did not share. Their trip to Japan last year was “a little repetitive” or “fascinating”, depending on who you asked.

 

She set out, walking along the busy road, stepping carefully over the sleeping dogs and gaping holes in the ground. The Balinese market stall owners offered her taxi rides, or durian, or macramé dreamcatchers. She politely declined them all, until a woman suggested, “Massage?”

A sliding door opened and she was invited into an airconditioned room where anatomical posters hung on the walls, like a human biology classroom. A strong smell filled the air, medicinal and nostril-clearing, like camphor.

“Please, sit,” the woman said, guiding her to a chair.

“Could I just have a foot massage, please?” she asked, as the woman walked away.

“Yes,” the woman called back from somewhere out of sight.

The room fell silent except for the music. It was not the ebullient tinkling she heard in the lobby of the hotel but rather a series of notes played and held until it seemed they would vibrate forever, even after the world collapsed. It was the sound of sunlight beaming against her closed eyelids. It made her think of the cosmos.

A man emerged out of a door and approached her, nodding and smiling. He was carrying a bucket of water.

“Hello, I’m Wayan.”

“Hello,” she replied.

He put the bucket down and lifted her feet into it, before pulling a small footstool out from behind her chair and sitting down.

He washed her feet as she watched on sheepishly, and then dried them in a brisk but gentle way that made her think he had children. After coating his hands in oil, he began massaging her left foot rhythmically. His face was impassive and focused, neither smiling nor frowning. She closed her eyes.

At first her thoughts carried her along – where would they go for dinner? But soon they grew quiet, as if she were nodding and smiling while slowly slipping out of a dinner party and into another, quieter, room. Time began to slow, the past and future folding themselves into the present. She was letting go of something that anchored her, but she felt no loss. The borders of her body dissolved as she merged with something greater, like a thimble of water poured into an ocean. There was no separation between her and the world. How exhausting it had been to guard those boundaries. How freeing it was to experience nothing except being nothing.

“Excuse me, Miss,” Wayan said, tapping her knee to wake her.

She paid and stumbled, newly reborn and delirious, out onto the busy street. The world was too loud. The honking traffic unbearable. She rushed back to the hotel with her oily feet sliding around in her sandals.

When she entered the room, he was eating a can of Pringles from the minibar.

“I only ever eat these on vacation,” he told her. “I don’t even think about them at home.” He stared at the can in wonder.

“Mm-hmm” was all she could say before she dropped onto the bed face first and fell instantly into a nap.

 

The next day she went back. “Is Wayan available?” she asked, feeling strangely like a child who had lost their parent in a shopping centre. He appeared and signalled to the chair. She dropped in faster this time, bypassing any visions, and sinking, sinking, sinking, but also floating. Floating as she sank. Heading straight to nowhere.

“Excuse me,” Wayan said too soon, tapping her knee and reminding her of her body, which she’d forgotten and left behind like a pair of sunglasses.


“Maybe you fell asleep,” he said at dinner, after she attempted to explain the liminal place she visited during the massages.

“I wasn’t asleep,” she said. “I was still aware of time passing. I just felt like I didn’t… exist.” She leapt to clarify. “In a good way.”

He frowned as she spoke, his eyes sliding over her shoulder to the chalkboard of specials on the wall behind her.

“We should get the tacos,” he said. “We could get the tacos.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "No body".

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