top of page

Too hard? - Jessica Crowley

Does there come a day in every woman’s life when she decides, this is the time I’m going to take my underwear off?

If there is, I’ve yet to experience it. I decide to keep my underwear on, pulling my shirt over my head, knocking the messy bun that sits like a crown loose and sending wavy, brown hair into my face. I unclip my nude bra (long gone are the hot pink and black lace) and lay it on top of the tee-shirt on the chair in the corner, semi-folded. My thumbs tug at the waistband of my black leggings (the teacher’s dress pants) and drag them downward, past the cesarean section scar with its shelf of fatty tissue, toward my poorly done ankle tattoo, and over my feet. I roll them into an untidy ball and place them like a jenga piece on top of the other garments.

The cotton blanket, white and soft, feels cool against my skin, creating a wave of goosebumps like ripples. I roll over onto my belly and adjust my face to fit into the oval hole, thinking of my thong and wishing it were a bikini bottom. I stare at the taupe tiles of varying shades on the floor and wait for her knock, hearing only water drip onto the belly of a small, gray Buddha for a few minutes.

“Okay, you ready now?” she asks.

“Yep,” I mumble.

“Hello? Are you ready?”

“Yes, sorry, you can come in.”

She rubs lotion onto the back of my neck, her fingers moving in circular motions along the vertebrae and into the muscles near the base of my skull. I am surprised by how tender they are and listen apprehensively to the tendons and hair crunch, fearing the floor will soon be covered in black run away strands.

For a few minutes, she plays the back of my neck as if it were a piano. An unintentional moan slips out.

“So tight,” she comments.

“Yeah,” I say, feeling mildly validated.

With a rhythmic awareness, she begins to knead my right trapezoid. It, like the rocks that cover the beaches on the Northshore of Long Island: sharp edge, hard, dense (very much unlike the smooth, quartz pebble one might find near the shores of a lake in upstate New York), is stubborn, and I wonder if she can actually fracture these rocks of mine with just her fingertips, hoping an elbow or two might be used. She rolls the shoulder clockwise then counterclockwise. My arm hangs loosely off the table like an elephant trunk swaying in the air.

“This, no good,” she muses.

“Yeah, I know,” I say.

Her tongue hits the roof of her mouth, making the “tsk” sound of parental disapproval.

As the minutes, achy and awkward, pass, the knots begin to warm under her tough touch. The fascia—tight and taut from years of stress—begins to give way, releasing the heat and the fury that lives there as a result of a heart in need of mending. I close my eyes and breathe, trying to clear my mind of any thought, but despite my deliberate exhalations, my mind bucks and neighs.

Before I left for the massage this morning, my husband, John, lay hungover (bloodshot eyes, fetal position) on the couch in our living room while I contorted my body in several yoga poses in an unsuccessful attempt at relief. Our two kids, four and six, played hide and seek under the dining room table, snickering to one another as if a curtain shielded them from our view.

John had gone out drinking the night before with friends from college. When I declared that I wouldn’t go to the massage, he said, “I’ll be okay. Just go already.” So I do. Later I learned that almost immediately after I left, he threw up in the upstairs bathroom as the kids chanted on the other side of the door, “Daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy!”

I giggle, thinking about him taking care of two high energy children. Certainly, Aidan, our six year old boy, wouldn’t stop talking on account of his father’s raging headache. My day, from dawn to dusk, is filled with his chatter: “Mom, did you know that beluga whales are the friendliest sea animals?” “Hey mom, do you think Dad will be home this weekend?” “Mom I was going to let it slide but you said I could get a new bey blade.” And Ava, our four year old girl, would almost definitely continue to squeal in a pitch so high causing the broken stained-glass in our front window to continue to fall in small shards into the plastic covering.

How was he going to get them to be still and quiet?

Her thumbs press into my hip socket where thoughts have built a home deep within the joints like termites. I moan (again).

“Too hard?” she asks.

“ No, no. I like it hard.”

She moves the buttock up and down

(thong, thong, thong, thong, thonggggg) God I hate that song.

The burn in the hamstring. The pressure in the calf. The sting in the heel. The ache in the arch. The pop in the toes. My awareness opens to the physical nature of the massage—the sensations, the pressure, the pain, the burning—and then closes, subsumed by thought. A phrase I recently read—thoughts have wings—pops up like a Facebook advertisement in my mind. I don’t know from where I read it, all I know is that my thoughts are not winged.

My thoughts are—thick, gnarled, fibrous, tangled—roots. They twist around organs like a snake squeezing the life out of its dinner; they form webs around muscles like the ones that decorate the basement stairs; they create a tautness like that of a fishing line that never seems to end. It is as if they share a circulatory system like the Aspen trees of Pando; a forest of thought from a single root system. These rooted thoughts scrape and claw—give us attention—they scream. They tickle the tear ducts with wispy memories and droplets of future fears. They crawl down my back, burrowing in between shoulder blades like the groundhog who sees its shadow.

It is a cold morning in January of 2018. John has recently started a second career in nursing. He is working fulltime as both a New York City fireman and registered nurse.

He deserves a night out.

I continue to contemplate his insane work schedule as she crosses to the other side of the table. I feel her belly brush against the crown of my head. Once again, she plays the back of the neck and I sink deeper into the melody of relief. Her sojourn down the left side of my body begins. I am excited that she might actually rid me of this muscular tension that, as of late, has become unbearable.

The neurologist that treated my migraines with botox should be jailed, fucking asshole.

I blame both him and myself for this unnecessary debacle. The day after the twenty injections I couldn’t hold my head up to brush my teeth. Since that day, five months ago, the muscles in my neck, trapezoids, chest, and shoulders have been in an uproar. More so than ever before, which is saying a lot.

She uses her elbow on the knot, making more “tsk” sounds.

i know; i know.

I think of the doctor’s reaction to my reaction (to the botox): “that’s not common.” And then the myriad of muscle relaxers, anti inflammatories, and other drugs prescribed over the last five months. I compliment myself on teaching and mothering full-time while dealing with this shit.

“Relax,” she tells me.

I start counting breaths:

1, 2, 3,

food shopping (bring the kids), do laundry, maybe clean bathrooms

4, 5, 6

oh, that feels good,

what should I do for dinner? is John working tonight?

7, 8, 9, 10

aidan missed karate, damn it

11, 12

grade periods: 2 and 5 study guides

She’s found the mother of all knots hiding behind a shoulder blade. An image of my daughter—blonde hair, green eyes, long legs—emerges, but as soon as I warm to her she vanishes, kidnapped by dread.

will he be okay?

The masseuse leaves the knot still intact, burrowed, perhaps, too deep into the muscle, and continues down my spine. I don’t want her to move on until that knot is obliterated, but when she pushes into the lower back, I exhale like a popped balloon.

don’t take him, god

I intentionally shake my head, clear my throat, blink my eyes, slowly.



The palm of her hand pushes into the hip socket as an image of my son pushes into my consciousness. I feel the hot tears pool in my eyes and feel grateful I’m still face down on the table, not wanting to explain the emotional release.

save me Mommy, save me.

I’m able to blink the bloody memory away, placing my awareness on my hamstring, the back of my knee, the calf, and, my most favorite spot, the foot’s arch. How I’d love for her to spend five minutes here. yes, that’s the spot. She tells me to roll over and holds the blanket up like a curtain. My nipples are erect about which I take note and wonder if I should tell her I’m chilly. I don’t. enjoy this; you promised. She pulls the blanket over my breasts, smoothing it down under my armpits. Having worked both sides of the back of my body, she is once again standing belly to crown at the head of the table. Her hands come up onto my chest from behind.

a hospital bed, a chest tube

One, two, three fat tears secretly slide down my cheeks. my son. She pulls my right leg out, bends my knee, takes hold of my foot, and pushes the leg back, stretching the groin. I again think about thoughts and wings and roots. I think about the power of thoughts, and wonder how to change mine, knowing I have to find a way into acceptance or surrender or both. The left leg is stretched.

She rolls my ankles, patts my legs and rapidly slides her hands down my arms. A warm, moist washcloth, smelling of eucalyptus, is used to wipe down my chest, face, throat, and neck. She strokes my hair for a brief moment before leaning down to whisper, “all done.” I nod and say, “Thank you.” She tells me to take my time getting dressed and turns up the dimmer just a bit.

I lay there for a moment, taking her advice. The rhythm of the heart beating, the tingle in the feet and hands, the breath in my belly instead of only the chest. Am I better? When I sit up, a bit dizzy, I am face to face with my reflection. I roll my head from one side then to the other.

It’s not fair.

I nod. My bottom lip quivers. I close my eyes, legs dangling off the table like a child. I slide off the table toward my folded clothes and slowly dress, pulling the leggings onto each sticky leg. Before I walk out, I turn and peer into the mirror. It’s going to be okay. I tell myself and force a smile, wiping away a stray tear along with a stray hair.

I grabbed my bag, adjusted my thong, and walked out.


Jessica Crowley is a writer, former teacher, and, most importantly, a mother. She is raising two children: a boy born with congenital heart disease and almond, brown eyes (a miracle) and a girl born with blonde hair and green eyes (another miracle). Her most recent work can be seen in PANK and The Louisville Review.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page