I was massaging a client’s calf muscle when I felt something odd. At first, I thought my client had forgotten to remove a sock. It felt like skin, but the topography resembled the bottom of a sneaker. Working in the dark, I effleuraged the area, trying to understand what I was feeling, like a blind man reading braille in a foreign language.
Despite my state of confusion, I finished the massage. My client thanked me for the work on her shoulders.
“Yeah, they were really tight,” I said, handing her a glass of water.
“Yeah,” she said in between sips. “They feel so much better.” I tucked a pillow under her head.
“Oh,” she said. “I forgot to mention that I have a skin graft, on my calf. After a burn. Forgot to put it on the intake form, too.”
Like most massage therapists, I was unfazed. Unusual body parts don’t freak me out, and neither do blood and guts. I trace this to my childhood. My mother was a doctor and medical officer of our city. In her library of medical books, my favorite was a hardcover entitled Anomalies of Medicine. My siblings and I took turns reading it out loud to each other, cover to gruesome cover.
She had turned our living room into an outpatient clinic, I always looked forward to seeing my mother’s most fascinating patients, those with six fingered hands, giant goiters or nostril cysts decorated with hair. I would secretly peek through a crack in a curtain, hoping to catch a glimpse of a case of elephantitis. Inevitably, my mother would shoo me away into a corner with a murderous look.
Sometimes gruesome body parts come as a result of a terrible blunder. Imelda Marcos was touring the country on her maiden voyage as the newly minted First Lady, and was visiting our hometown. My mother brought me to the rooftop of her office building for a bird's eye view. I saw a crush of people below, but I couldn’t locate the First Lady, then famous for her porcelain beauty and decades away from her fall from grace. My mother pointed to a white umbrella in the center of the throng. “She is under it,” she told me.
Suddenly, a gun shot rang out! The crowd scattered away from the white umbrella, now shaking to and fro. My mother sprang into action. She ran down three flights of stairs and through two corridors directly into her office. She dragged me behind her and I recall never feeling the stairs or the floor beneath me.
Minutes later, a man in a military uniform was escorted into her office. She shooed me into a corner. The uniformed man held up his right hand -- it was oozing blood and had a hole in the center of the palm. It was big enough to fit a golf ball -- sunlight from the window glittered right through it. My mother began to shout out a litany of prayers as she wrapped his hand in gauze and asked the man: What, in the name of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, happened? Did someone try to kill the First Lady?
“No, doktora, no,” he said, his voice shaking. “My gun went off -- I shot myself by mistake. Jesus, Mary, Joseph.”
A few weeks after the shooting incident I learned the carnival show would be passing through our city. The new main feature was Shrimp Boy, who was Incredible! Unbelievable! A creature half boy half shrimp! Clearly this trumped the hand with the bullet hole in it.
I begged my mother to take me to the carnaval, and at first she brushed off all my pleas. Eventually, exhausted by my incessant pestering, she relented and promised to bring me on her official inspection of the carnival's premises.
On the appointed day, we arrived at a caboose. On its side was a portrait of a giant red shrimp with a human head. A man led us to the Shrimp Boy’s sleeping quarters and on the way my heart thumped with anticipation. “There he is,” said the man. He pointed to a boy in an oversized plaid shirt, reclining in what looked like a giant baby’s crib decorated with painted red hibiscus flowers.
Who is this? I thought. He looked nothing like the Shrimp Boy in the portrait. Here was a boy not so different from me. What’s with the crib? Shouldn’t there be a fish tank full of seawater? What is going on?
My mother introduced herself to the boy. He said good morning and smiled. He said his name was Junior. She touched his chin affectionately and said, “Such a handsome boy, Junior.” The Shrimp Boy blushed, the color of shrimp. What a neat trick, I thought. Maybe this wasn’t such a waste of time.
“Show them to me,” she said. To both our surprise, Junior nonchalantly took off all his clothes. Judging from my mother’s quick change of expression, I knew that Junior hadn’t followed her instructions to the letter. Nakedness was clearly not an issue with him, which was quite unusual in Filipino culture, where modesty is a virtue.
And suddenly, there they were -- two crooked arms with folded fingerless hands, jutting out of his abdomen like a dog’s front legs. Thinking back, it was probably what remained of his twin, absorbed in vitro. He gently pulled them up and shyly showed them to my mother, like a bouquet of flowers.
“Can you move them?” my mother asked.
“No,” he said.
Again, I was disappointed. If I had two extra arms, I thought, I would play piano duets all by myself, or do amazing juggling tricks. She gave him a quick examination and pronounced him healthy and well cared for. She thanked him, and told him to get dressed.
As we left his caboose, I heard my mother whisper to herself, as though I were invisible. “Well, that was something,” she said to no one in particular. “He may be a Shrimp Boy, but he’s no shrimp where it counts."