Sliding into a booth at the gelato parlor, a shooting pain flared in my spine. I sat up straighter, the way he taught me. I took off my black parka. He unbuttoned his coat but kept on the blue ski cap. I crossed my legs. He reached over to uncross them.
“Feet flat on floor. Better for back,” he said in his Slavic-sounding accent.
At his office, it was normal to have his hands on me. Here, I freaked out. What if someone I knew saw us? Who would they think he was?
We’d met at his Manhattan spinal-rehab center months earlier. With dark bangs, a baby face, chinos, and white sneakers, my physical therapist looked 17. Lying on a table in black sweats and an oversized top, I felt ancient. That summer I’d injured myself so badly I could barely walk. My father had a major heart attack. My editor dumped me. A decade of success seemed over. My husband couldn’t reschedule his Asian business trip to help me recover. In my briefcase, I kept a glamour shot of me in a tight dress and heels, taken eight years earlier. I pretended it was for emergency assignments. Really, I was carrying around the younger, thinner woman I used to be, to prove I wasn’t a lonely, has-been cripple.
“Two ligament tears in lower spine.” He read my MRI report.
“But I speed walk, swim, kickbox …”
“Kickboxing! Twisting horrible for back,” he scolded, scanning my chart. “Especially for college professor. At your age.”
“I should just kill myself now,” I joked.
“No, do not.” He sounded alarmed. “Don’t worry, we figure out.”
I didn’t want his pity. I ached as he stretched me, lifting my inner leg with both hands. The only man who’d touched my thigh in 20 years, aside from my husband, was my 80-year-old gynecologist.
“You’re just out of college?” I asked to distract from the agony.
“Ten years off. Thirty.”
“Where are you from?”
“Right side worse than left,” he mumbled, scrawling on my chart. “Bosnia.”
“You always so nosy?” he asked.
“My years as a journalist.”
I spied a tattoo under his shirt sleeve. “Bosnian flag,” he said. When he ran to assist a patient on crutches, I pulled essays from my purse to grade.
“’What I Did On My Summer Vacation?’” he asked sarcastically, upon returning.
“First class assignment: Write three pages on your most humiliating secret.”
“You Americans,” he scoffed. “Why anyone reveal that?”
“It’s healing. And my students publish essays and memoirs,” I said. “Try it.”
“Nobody want to hear my story,” he scoffed.
Next session, while on my back with electrodes stuck to my skin, he handed me his three pages: He was 12 during the 1993 ethnic cleansing campaign against his people. His karate coach came to his door with an AK-47, taking his dad and brother to a concentration camp. I was stunned out of my self-pity.
I took out a pen, correcting his grammar, starring details, scrawling in the margins. “Why you draw on my page? Don’t like?” he asked.
“Blows my socks off,” I said.
“Great,” I reassured. “Do another childhood scene.”
Next session, as I lay on the table, he handed me 43 pages he expected me to read on the spot. “Great line, right?” He pointed. “What do you think?”
I’d turned my mellow physical therapist into a neurotic freelance writer.
“Lousy mood today,” he warned, weeks later.
“What’s her name?” I asked, as he arched me over an exercise ball.
“Disaster,” he said. “Can’t talk about.”
“I already read about your late mother and the war ruining your childhood.”
“Now you want breakup that killed rest of me?”
His reticence was intriguing. At the water fountain, he flirted with the blonde masseuse. I checked my cell. My husband hadn’t returned my messages. What good was a spouse if he played the Bad Boyfriend? Lifting weights on the shoulder machine, I winced. My physical therapist rubbed my neck.
“I have pretty students you should meet,” I offered.
“Fix my grammar, not love life,” he snapped.
I was mortified I’d alienated him. That night, he emailed, “Keep feet flat while working,” as if spying on my crossed legs. “I tell you about Disaster someday if it stops hurting.”
He was elated when a newspaper editor I knew published his essay, acting like I was his hero. “Hey Prof, here’s a present.” He gave me a Mars pen that wrote in space, on water, upside down. I booked more sessions.
Our slots stretched to three hours, until we were the last people at the center. I edited his pages, then turned him on to Croatian poems. The last time I’d shared poetry with a man was when my spouse and I recited Gregory Corso’s “Marriage” at my agent’s engagement party.
My husband returned to town jet-lagged, mentally elsewhere. My physical therapist and I shared old photographs. I kept getting younger, showing him one at 23, my thinnest.
“Look same now,” he said. At midnight, he emailed, “I liked pic of you in black dress. Thin arms, long legs. You would have given me whiplash if you walked by.”
My cheeks flushed. The last time I flirted with someone his age, I was his age. My husband, 11 years my senior, didn’t care when I came home late, babbling about Bosnia. Should he?
My rehab sped up that winter, as if my physical therapist’s youthful touch transferred his vigor. I gave him literature, fixed mistakes, made him lyrical. He surprised me by reading my books, quoting from them. He was popular, athletic. What an incongruous link: star quarterback under the spell of the middle-aged English teacher. He taught me to text, tweet, Skype, and download iTunes.
“Go out later?” he emailed one Friday, after a literary agent called him.
“I have plans.” I was excited for a romantic dinner with my husband. But on my way to my physical-therapy session, my husband cancelled.
“You’re never here for me anymore!” I yelled into the receiver.
“I’m not even here for myself,” he said.
He wasn’t. Two years earlier, he’d had his own injury, tripping at a movie theater leaving Iron Man. It led to a herniated disc, nerve damage, and a quip: “Guess this proves I’m no superhero.” Afterward he walked slower, gobbled Advil, slept worse. He refused my offers to collaborate on work projects.
Ambling to PT, feeling slighted, my email dinged.
“Am glad you blew out your back, or I would not meet you and you would not have made my life,” my physical therapist texted. “Let’s celebrate?”
“Tonight,” I typed. “It’s a date.”
After soothing my spine, he suggested gelato. I was on a strict diet. Forget going out with a dashing, unmarried foreigner I hardly knew. Risking ice cream in public felt scandalous. He ordered chocolate. I overindulged: a cherry, blueberry, coconut, and banana-pecan mix.
“Tell me how to do book with you,” he said.
“Tell me about your ex-girlfriend.”
He took off his coat, keeping his cap on. “Sometime I throw my cards under table. Not now. Do not want you to think I am crazy.”
“You read about my heartbreaks. Do you think less of me?”
He shook his head no, then spilled: “Debra. Two years of love, cannot keep hands off each other. Major amour. Then, on romantic Jamaica trip, Debra got sick. Barely out of bed. Then she push away. Poof — over. Totally katastropha. E Jebi ga. “
Apparently he broke into Bosnian when he was verklempt. During a jumbled outpouring in two languages, he kept his eyes on the floor, unable to look at me, with the lost Debra on his lips, tormented over why she’d left him.
I flashed to the traumatizing demise of my first college passion, decades earlier, after a birth-control failure. At 20, I was too young for motherhood. We’d never recovered from the abortion, breaking up afterward.
“Was she pregnant?” I asked.
“No. Trip terrible. At home, it is over. Nema smisla.”
“Then what happened?”
“Can not tell. Or you think I am ludilo.”
“A Greenwich Village writing teacher can handle ludilo.”
“Could not eat, sleep. Did not want to go on,” he confessed. “Dream of Debra this week. Want to die.”
I wanted to ease his heartache the way he’d eased my back. “I was obsessed with my first love a long time,” I said. “Needed years to get over it.” It took being wed to someone better to know the difference between early infatuation and lasting affection.
“You think I not see Debra for long time?” he questioned.
“You’ll meet someone better, who’ll adore you forever. Like I did.” I was relieved to mention my husband, as if he’d joined us at the table.
I let myself know what I knew: Instead of commiserating on the humiliations of aging, I’d let my husband check out. I’d withdrawn too. Easier to focus on a man half his age who emailed, called, and texted 20 times daily. I had to fight harder for my marriage, push my husband into a joint project, make room for our vulnerability. We had to forgive and take care of each other.
“You think I am weak, screwed-up mess,” my physical therapist mumbled.
“I think you’re awesome,” I said, sounding 17. I crossed my legs.
“Bad for back.” He uncrossed them.
He took off his cap, revealing hat hair. As I smoothed down a wild strand, I saw: My feelings for him were maternal. He missed his late mother. There was something lacking in my life too. My spouse and I were eternally linked. We just needed to find each other again. I wasn’t looking for a lover; I was longing for the child I didn’t have at 20. After we’d married, we’d tried to conceive, but couldn’t. I thought that loss was long-resolved. But my injured body and career setbacks had thrown me into reverse gear, forcing my speed-of-lightning urban life into slow motion, highlighting what wasn’t there. In college, I’d imagined having a boy. He would have been 30 now, like my physical therapist. Had I become the doting Jewish mother to an adopted Muslim son?
“Thank you for help telling my story,” he said. “Out of everything in life, this gives me most pride.”
“I’m proud of you,” I said. “Maybe I’m your substitute mom.”
“That why I tell you secrets I do not tell anyone?”
I nodded. “So I’ve got a beautiful 23-year-old student you should meet.” I wrote down her number. He took it this time.
Susan Shapiro is the author of the memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart. She is working on a sequel, from which this essay is adapted.