I was sore from exercises, the kind of exercises one might do if they learned they might be dancing in public, often, and for money. They weren’t exercises born from any type of mania, low self-esteem or from a history or struggling with my weight. I just decided I need to step up my fitness game for the summer, if I plan on being in any hula shows, and I do.
I’d been working out for two days and my back hurt. Muscles that are already normally achy from the mundane work that I do, sometimes aching from just how mundane that work can be, felt like they’d been schlacked in a thick coating of quickly drying cement. It’s about seven thirty in the evening, a perfectly respectable hour for me, but most respectable massage shops are closed by then. But not the Asian massage store in the mall. They are open until nine at night, just when I need someone to break this concrete off my back.
Whilst parking my car in the well lit parking lot of our illustrious Cordova Mall, I recall an incident in which I was in no little trouble with my family. It was a similar story, I’d made myself sore with exercise and landed myself in one of these Asian massage places on Davis Highway, you know the busy four and six lane thoroughfare laced with fast food chains, homeless people and a Firestone. There’s also a Cheddar’s and a massage place.
I step into the dimly lit lobby off Davis Highway. A woman greets me in broken English and tells me her name is Suzy. It felt like Suzy and I were the only two people in the building, from the hollow only two people in the building vibe the walls were giving off. I followed her into a pinkly lit honeycomb peppered with curtained doors. She stops in front of one such curtain and shows me in. She removes a small bouquet of plastic flowers from the massage table and tells me to undress, she’ll be right back.
Bare from the waist up like an Egyptian priestess – because I don’t want her wasting any of the precious 30 minutes I’ve requested on my legs and feet, which do not hurt the way my back does.
I’d put the tiny little sheet, just larger than a Kleenex, across the expanse of my back, which Suzy snatches right off me anyway. She proceeds to beat the hell out of me for about ten minutes. Between the brain scorching agony of her sharp elbows digging between ribs and excavating lost cities from beneath my shoulder blades, there are moments in which I feel the renewed flow of blood to my extremities and think she might be performing a miracle.
A ringing bell summons Suzy to the lobby. She does not close the curtain behind her, so there I am, smoldering on the table like a burned city, listening to her greet someone in hushed and broken words. When she returns, she only half closes the curtain, so I see the residue of those pink light bulbs on the walls in the hallway. I feel agitation translate through her hands into my muscles. There is a new quality to her work, summarized by the sentiment one might think when it is time to get this show on the road. But that’s the problem with working on services for a specified amount of time; no matter how fast you work, you still can’t rush. I was simultaneously uncomfortable and ready to leave and unable to move, barring a fire alarm.
Upon relating this tale to my family, I was met with no little horror. They were certain I could have been human trafficked, and that I’d narrowly escaped some horrible fate. I told them in no uncertain terms that I’m too old for them to want and that, if anything, I lent a legitimacy to their business unbeknownst to me at the time. I did concede, once properly dosed with the toxic level of guilt every family knows how to portion, that I would never return.
Now, here I am, walking into the mall for the same purpose, perhaps safer simply because it is in the mall. I manage pass a going out of business sale at Pay Less Shoes, a true litmus of my willpower and a testament to my level of discomfort. Passing by, I recall the white, low heeled shoes I wore to fifth grade graduation, and wonder if somewhere in their stock the same pumps might be found.
The massage shop is right in the center of the corridor. Two people stand in the doorway, both wearing red collared shirts. They stand casually until they see me, then they’re like carnival barkers someone activated by a hidden button. I lock eyes with the woman, who smiles at me from beneath her straight, sleek bob. She reaches out with both hands, as though we are kids on the playground who want to spin each other around. She tells me her name is Leena.
I tell her twenty minutes, point to my upper back. She puts me face down and fully clothed on the first table in a row of about ten massage tables in this large, square room. It is dimly lit compared to the bustling mall. I hear noise from people; a loud whoop from a post-pubescent Navy recruit, a child crying, a pack of women chatting. Leena begins to pinch and knead my shoulders, drops elbows between vertebra, runs her hands like electrical currents from my shoulders to my heels. I have not shaved my legs in two weeks and am glad I’m wearing long pants.
While she frames the middle of my spine with her hands and rocks me side to side, I feel a presence at my feet. The man, who was standing with her in the doorway, wants to to rub my feet for an additional fee.
“No, thank you. Just my back.” I feel him retreat, perhaps grateful I declined. He’d touched my ankles, no less furry than a well groomed Clydesdale. That’s what he gets.
In his retreat, he asks Leena something in Chinese, which she puts to me in English, “Do you want man or woman massage you?”
The audacity of that fool! Trying to swipe her client right out from under her hard working hands! I say, in no uncertain terms, “You’re perfect.” When she relates my response in Chinese to her co-worker, I detect a melodic glee akin to Nanny Nanny Boo Boo. He remains close, talking to her from a stool behind the register.
I feel lulled by the conversational tone of a language so foreign to me, with its soft shh sounds at the end of long words and the way consonants begin or end with a resonant jin sound or end with a pitched inflection and ing like little bells ringing. Leena sits on the table by me and and braces my armpit against her hip as she drapes my arm across her lap, so she may renew blood flow to the muscles barely holding my shoulder blades in place. I decide she might be a visiting Goddess and tip her accordingly.
Dribble pools on the side of my low lip and I manage to refrain from drooling on the floor. I adjust the single paper towel, the only thing between the corners of my mouth and the face cradle, knowing full well it’s the only thing between my own mucus membranes and the countless members of the public that Leena and her co-workers have massaged. To tell you that even this was like a distant concern born from the mythology of pathogens should tell you how desperately I needed a massage.
I didn’t need an Advil to go to bed that night. And I’m probably going back tomorrow.