Feb 23, 2011
The first began with an impulsive turn down a side street in Chiang Mai. I had followed a sandwichboard sign with "Massage" written in pink and green chalk, like daily specials on a cafe menu. The place looked like an old hotel lobby, mid-renovation. The low ceiling was propped up by wooden columns, painted white and peeling.
The woman behind the desk wore pink pyjama shorts and a tight black T-shirt. I asked her for a half-hour massage and she nodded stiffly. When I paid, she slipped the money quickly into a lacquered box. I could see that it was empty. She caught my eye and pointed to a saggy recliner. I sat down while she assembled a plastic shower bucket of oil and lotion in unmarked bottles. With a warm, damp cloth, she rubbed my right foot gently, then the left. My foot twitched and she smiled, meeting my eyes shyly.
"If you feel very wonderful and relax, will you stay one hour? Two hours?"
Thai people are famous for their smiles, which are bright and certain and proud. This woman, though. She smiled with uncertainty, her forehead creased and her teeth biting just slightly on her lip.
"I can't," I told her. "I'm meeting a friend soon."
She nodded and started kneading my feet.
When a neighbour shouted something through the doorway, the woman jumped up and ran to a boxy cassette player on the counter by the door. She hit play and scooted back.
It was Whitney's Houston's greatest hits. If she saw me grinning, she didn't ackowledge it, but I swear, she was rubbing in time with the music.
The next was full body number, and the masseuse led me behind a screen to undress. "This, you put on," she said, handing me a thin white sarong. I tied a makeshift dress and looked down. My pink underwear, beneath the sheer cotton, was screaming.
I asked to use the bathroom and she motioned down a corridor to the back of the building. A woman knelt on the tile floor there, scrubbing a bowl with a soapy cloth. A little boy was running towards her, naked, wet and grinning. She smiled and pointed me quickly to the bathroom.
When I came out again, hugging my sarong around me, the woman was gone and the boy stood there, wrapped in a towel and watching me. I grinned and he let the towel fall to the foor, hands on hips like a cowboy. Looking anywhere but at his nakedness, I started down the hall. The tiles were clammy and hospital blue, with faded Snow White stickers down the wall. They were a few inches lower than the boy's eyes.
He stretched his arm and legs out, blocking the corridor.
"What your name?"
"Anne," I answered. "And what's your name?"
He bobbed his head, shimmying his thin shoulders. "What your name name name name?" I knew he didn't understand what the sentence meant. It was a thread of sounds that made him giggle. He bounced and grinned, but he still didn't let me past. How to handle a naked child that isn't your own? I cupped his shoulders gently, trying to guide him to one side, but he squirmed free and resumed the barricade, wiggling his bum and singing, "apple, apple apple apple."
When a woman's voice called, his singing stopped. He grabbed the towel off the ground, gave my sarong a quick flutter, and bounced off through a doorway. I walked back to the massage table, mouthing quietly the word. "Apple, apple apple." Say them enough times, the word just sounds goofy.