The Chiropractic Embrace

Kaveena told me that the bar looked like France, and it did. The walls were red, the light was dim and there was jazz. We were finishing up our wine, idly catching up on people and places. What a coincidence that we’d both recently taken up surfing. Maybe we could surf in Nicaragua, before it was completely gentrified. And where was that guy she used to date? On a farm in Sri Lanka, of course. And whatever happened with so-and-so? Wait, did I see you since you went to the Netherlands? Was that before or after I went to Germany? And he quit med school, and she was finishing law school. When other people get married we feel certain unexpected things ranging from exhuberance (we are not yet adults) to despair (we may never be adults). Sometimes interesting people fall from the sky and sometimes there are none and it is like a desert. Immigration law is changing all the time, and it’s so hard to find an apartment.

Just as we were about to leave, a boisterious group of men sat down at the next table. They were a friendly and unlikely threesome–a Hungarian acrobatic pilot, a Spanish ex-paratrooper, and an El Salvadoran yoga and surfing enthusiast, or at least that’s what it said on his T-shirt. They bought us a drink and themselves some conversation.

The one nearest me zeroed in. It was the Spanish ex-paratrooper. I felt nothing, not a spark of interest, nor the desire to idly flirt. Still, his factsheet was intersting. He was in the air force, or at least he used to be, now he was in import/export. It was hard to tell. The bar was noisy, the music was loud. We were joined by a Costa Rican woman and the conversation went Spanish.

The pickup method of this intent Spaniard was to wheel off credentials. Low-flying planes, search and rescue, water polo.

‘That’s a lot of treading water,” I said.

“I use the butterfly kick,” said the Spanish ex-paratrooper.

He became more agressive, put his hand on my arm, my knee, my thigh. I admired his nerve if not his approach. “I will take you up in a Cessna and we will see the city,” he said, repeatedly asking for my number. I feigned confusion, sipped my wine.

“I am not a licensed pilot, but I am a very good pilot,” said the Spanish ex-paratrooper. “But he will fly the plane.” He pointed to the Hungarian acrobatic pilot.

“I will fly the plane,” said the Hungarian acrobatic pilot.

The men tried to guess our ethnicities. “Puerto Rican!” they said, triumphantly pointing at me.

“No, but my grandmother was often mistaken for Puerto Rican.”

“I knew it!” they said.

Somehow it came out that the Costa Rican woman was 51. She looked to be at most 35.

“I hope you got a good deal when you sold your soul to the devil,” I yelled over the jazz.

“All white magic,” laughed the Costa Rican woman. “All white magic.”

Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, all these rich ports and coasts.

I wriggled free of the insistent hand of the Spanish ex-paratrooper. The three men revealed they had just come from Bikram yoga class.

“I need to do it,” said the Spanish ex-paratrooper, “because of the things I saw in the Air Force. The ugly things.”

“Yes, the ugly things,” I repeated.

It was time to go. We all stood up. The Spanish ex-paratrooper looked defeated. “We will fly around the city in a Cessna,” he said. “You have my card!”

He wasn’t barking up the wrong tree. It could have worked, he just wasn’t quite the Spanish ex-paratrooper for that place and time, or the right Spanish ex-paratrooper for me. Outside the bar that looked like France, with the Romance languages on our tongues, we began hugging and kissing goodnight.

Except for the Spanish ex-paratrooper. He grabbed me in a giant bear hug, squeezing very tightly. There was something refreshingly un-smarmy about this hug, though all of the rest of our interaction had been so patently geared towards the doomed pick-up. The drink, the number, the posturing, the promise of the plane. “Aaaargh!” he roared.

Back in New York I’d been wearing this down vest Rebecca found in the depths of some relative’s closet. It’s a little tight, and it grips me around the torso and squeezes my ribs. The goodnight hug of this frustrated Spanish ex-paratrooper was like a high-octane version of this humanoid down vest. My breath went out of me like an accordian. I thumped him hard on the back in a kind of wrapping-up-the-hug gesture (also, back-thumping is a sure way to desexualize a hug, it says, “all right there buddy, go get ’em” in the same way that a slow, hypnotic massage on the upper arm says, “well, hel-lo“) and sure enough he gave me a final, Herculean squeeze. My back cracked in a most satisfying way.

He was the first of the group I’d said goodbye to, and after we’d made the rounds of all the others, he grabbed me again in his chiropractic embrace. Though his flirtatious tableside touches hadn’t been entirely welcome (don’t they have books now, for men, about how you’re not supposed to touch a woman until she touches you? There is a short list of men who are welcome to fondle me any time, and the rest of them should respect my airspace, paratroopers or not) I really, really liked what the water polo and the paratrooping and maybe even the importing and exporting had done for his squeezing abilities. Having been hesitant to take our interaction beyond the greeting phase, I now wanted to say goodbye to this Spanish ex-paratrooper and second and maybe even a third time. My back cracked again and felt a great degree of tension release from my muscles and joints. I became so relaxed and focused I was able to think with great clarity from within the pleasant cocoon of his muscular arms. “Soon, very soon,” I thought, “he is really going to get the wrong idea about all of this.”

I hardly knew this Spanish ex-paratrooper, and already my needs and his desires were headed for an unhappy convergence. Would it be inappropriate for me to make a kind of strangled, groaning sound at this moment? Perhaps. Our interaction, from my perspective, had transcended the quasi-romantic and become healing, but I wasn’t sure he saw it that way.

His viselike grip on me was tightening for another monumental squeeze. I decided this one would have to be my last, otherwise things were going to get out of hand. Sure enough, he went in for the ambiguous kiss. I deflected it toward my cheek and felt the last of my vertabrae give way. Dazed, I looked at Kaveena and raised my eyebrows in that universal form of commuincation that says, “let’s blow this popsicle stand.” She opened her umbrella and led me through the drizzle to the BART.

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