On a Saturday morning in the fall of 1981, I was eating breakfast and reading a letter from my surprisingly patient landlord when Stella, barefoot and wiping sleep from her eyes, dropped into her chair. She poured cereal into a bowl and, perusing a glossy catalog addressed to the prior tenant, said solemnly, “I’ll take the bra and panty set.” Stella was 9 and wore undershirts.
I frowned, feigning offense. “You can’t get both. It’s only one thing a page.”
“It’s a set, Mom,” she explained, making a delicate smudge with her finger around the disputed items. “It only counts as one thing.”
The phone rang and I lifted the receiver. I recognized the voice on the other end of the line and dragged the phone into the hall. A minute later, the receiver clattered as I returned it to its cradle. My arm had turned to water. Stella shot me a questioning glance. Casually, I tucked a curl behind my ear and asked if she’d mind spending the day at Nicole’s. “But it’s Saturday.” I was quiet—what could I say? “Yeah, okay.” She scowled.
I telephoned Maren, the mother of Stella’s best friend. Maren was a nurse at San Francisco General and, like me, a mom who’d left her husband and moved to the city. We often took turns watching each other’s child and had similar parenting concerns—one of our first conversations had been about whether Barbie dolls gave our girls the wrong idea about women’s bodies. When I asked if Stella could spend the day at their house, Maren said they’d be happy to have her.
While Stella dressed, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. How had I—raised in a comfortable Minneapolis neighborhood by a father who bought a new car every two years and a mother who prided herself on not working outside the home—become engaged in such a depraved venture? Never especially adventurous, I’d married and had a child young instead of striking out on my own for a career. What I was doing now was my wildest move ever, and it was one that could wipe me out or make me.
Even then I wondered about my motives. I remembered hearing that hookers had daddy issues, and I thought about my father standing me on his shoes and dancing 5-year-old me around the kitchen. When I was 10 or 11, I’d put on shows for him, imitating my mother’s tight-lipped jerks and physical clumsiness, characteristics that were exaggerated when she was angry, which was often. My father laughed at my antics, but when things got hot, he’d urge me to stop and not rile her up.
He and I had remained close until one night in my sophomore year when my parents came home and found me making out on the living room couch with Vince Green. Things between my father and me were never the same after that and, a year later, he accepted a job offer in Texas and explained that a clean break would be best for everyone. My mom later learned that a woman my dad worked with had followed him and they got married when my parents’ divorce became final. I didn’t see him after that. But was that a reason to become a hooker?
Staring into the mirror, the decision I’d made less than a week before now felt alien, as though I’d had no part in its making. I tried to recall the sense of possibility I’d enjoyed when I’d gotten up the nerve to call the parlor and to plunge myself into this wild enterprise, but all my bravado was eclipsed by dread.
I pulled the bristles through my stubborn curls, and shook my head until my dark hair billowed. How was I supposed to look? How would the other women look? I steadied my hands against the sink and recorded what I saw: a big-boned woman who’d been through a long rough patch and it showed. I pinched my cheeks to make them rosy, imagined that they made me look cheerful and hoped that might be enough. Sitting on the edge of the tub, I soaped my legs and ran a razor up them. Marco, my soon-to-be ex-husband, had liked me natural, so it’d been a long time since I’d shaved.
My heart raced thinking about Marco and what he’d think of what I was about to do. I’d been madly in love with him, enough that when I’d gotten pregnant unexpectedly and he asked me to marry him, for the sake of our child, I was delighted. He was the One for me. But he’d been consistently unfaithful and consistently lied about it. A year ago, after years of tears and arguments and pleading, I’d finally left him. But even then, we’d gotten back together a few times—until I found out about some new girl. Six weeks ago, I’d moved to San Francisco to get my degree from San Francisco State and to finally be free of him.
I’d promised to arrive within the hour, so I hurriedly changed into my best skirt and blouse and ran the brush through Stella’s hair. I found my purse on the drain board next to a half-eaten bowl of cereal. Spooning a bite into my mouth, the words last meal came to mind, but I dismissed the thought as melodramatic. Though my heart was pounding and my mouth was dry, I couldn’t afford to listen to the fearful voices. I shoved them aside as I slung my purse over my shoulder and the front door clicked decisively behind us. Outside Maren’s apartment, Stella offered her cool, pale cheek for a parting kiss and we waved goodbye with exaggerated mournfulness. I pulled open the door of our ’74 Olds, revved the engine and headed up a boulevard with a grassy median planted with a procession of grand palms. Cresting the nearly perpendicular hill, I might have been skirting the edge of the world and, a moment later, the shimmering city floated up.
The Powell Street cable car’s bell clanged as it passed limousine-lined Union Square, where befurred women shopped at I. Magnin’s and Saks. I turned onto O’Farrell, the main drag of the grimy Tenderloin District, whose bars and massage parlors were convenient for the businessmen booked at the downtown hotels.
I parked in front of a sign flashing GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! and walked down the street past a single-room occupancy hotel, a pawnshop and a laundromat where an old couple played cards. The neighborhood’s sleepy, nobody’s-home look was disturbed only by a bar, in front of which loitered a pack of sharply-dressed guys and a couple of tall street-hookers, who’d apparently been up all night. I yielded the sidewalk to the swaggering bunch, hoping to pass without notice, but one guy cupped his crotch, clicked his tongue and shouted, “Baby, mama!” I clutched my purse to my chest and hurriedly searched for my destination. Next door to Terminal Liquors and under a flickering sign, I found it: PARADISE MASSAGE.
At the top of a steep, tiled stairwell, I knocked on a solidly-made door. A tall, fine-boned Asian woman named Kim let me in. She wore a bright-white jumpsuit with an oversized zipper and her long hair was drawn up in a braid laced with red and gold ribbons. The colors matched a pair of startlingly high-heeled shoes. I immediately felt small and poorly dressed. My pink camisole blouse, sweetly sexy when I’d put it on, was obviously dowdy, as was my black wool skirt and worn-down shoes. When I get some money, I silently vowed, I’m getting new clothes. “What a beautiful outfit,” I exclaimed.
“You like?” Kim smoothed down an imaginary wrinkle on her pant leg and dropped her eyes, though they immediately shot back up as she appraised me with unconcealed interest. “You have big,” she declared, lightly grazing my bosom with her hand. “Men like big.”
I followed Kim down a hall toward a ringing phone and into a large, light-filled room where a transistor radio blared in competition with a console TV. The air smelled of hairspray and nail polish. Kim introduced me to a white woman, Beth, who was collapsed in a beanbag chair and rummaging in her purse. Without glancing up, Beth asked where I’d been working and I answered, “I haven’t really. . . See, I’m not even sure if. . .”
An Asian woman, Lili, lounged on a sofa peeling a grapefruit. She threw her head back. “You scared!” she exclaimed, wagging a finger and snorting. “My first time, I was 14-year-old, my uncle took me on bus, got me job as hostess at bar in Saigon. I was farm girl! I no speak English! The first week, customer raped me, cut me with knife, stole my money!” The peel she was working fell away in a delicate ribbon and she laughed. Whatever I might have said in reply to her terrible story went out of me like a match in the wind of her inexplicable cheer.
In the manner of a tour guide, Kim tipped her palms up to indicate the high-ceilinged room with two walls of windows, one overlooking the street, the other overseeing a patchwork of tarred roofs.
“Oh, yes, it’s wonderful.” Bravado made my voice shrill. “What a big television!”
I followed Kim down the long hall, past a sauna and the men’s and women’s bathrooms, to the laundry room. I’d arrived expecting questions about my age and experience, but it occurred to me that I might already have been hired—thanks doubtless to my white skin and big breasts. I had a few questions of my own, however, and ventured, “Do you really think they’ll pay me?”
Instead of responding, Kim explained fine points of the laundry, which I was surprised to learn was part of my duties. We moved down the hall past several open doors with the numbers one through five on them. Each small room was furnished with an unpainted bedside chest, a ladder-backed chair, and a narrow massage table draped with a white sheet and two thin towels. Leaning toward me confidentially, Kim whispered that they needed a new girl because Beth was a junkie. Kim pantomimed a syringe poking my arm. “That’s too bad,” I said lamely and then tried again, this time asking how much I should charge. Kim simply tossed her head, threw her ribboned braid forward and caressed it.
I was in the living room looking for a place to sit when Kim jabbed a pencil in my direction and hissed, “Laundry, laundry!” I was surprised to be singled out for chores so soon after arriving, but frankly I felt more comfortable tackling the wash than attempting further conversation. Plus I didn’t get the impression that the competition for Miss Congeniality was particularly intense, so I wanted to show that I was eager and willing. I piled sheets into the washer and returned with a load fresh from the dryer, which I let tumble onto a glass-topped coffee table already strewn with fashion magazines. As I folded, Lili leaned toward me and asked in a low voice if I had a license. “You go to school, get license. Otherwise, if police come, you go jail.” Between her rapid broken English and unlikely assertion, I wasn’t sure that I understood, but Lili winked and promised to help me. I smiled, but was mystified. Wasn’t I in a house of prostitution? And wasn’t that illegal? So how could there be a school or a license for it?
Beth, the white girl in the beanbag chair, scratched her neck and said, “I used to make good money, but I’m seriously hurting. The thing is, a new girl just means less for the rest of us.” She shot a grudging look at Kim, who was deep into Vogue. As Beth continued, her junkie whine picked up momentum and, by the end, she was hissing that maybe some people didn’t care, but she knew when there was trouble. She could smell it and I was it! Alarmed by Beth’s menacing tone, I wondered if she’d overheard Kim’s comment about me replacing her. I adopted an innocent look and eventually Beth’s head lolled back. The room went quiet and I resumed folding.
Lili slipped a grapefruit section into her mouth and announced jovially that she’d had two tourists who’d given her big tips, and another customer, who was a regular and a cheapskate. Sensing an opening, I slid across the couch and asked Lili how much we were supposed to charge. She turned her back. Another one who wouldn’t answer a simple question!
Beth, who’d appeared to be dozing, suddenly became agitated. “What are you, a cop or something? Damon, he says to watch out for people who want to know everything.” Looking up, Kim eyed Beth and admonished her that I was a nice girl with a big smile and, if she didn’t like it, she could leave.
And then the doorbell rang. Lili gulped the remainder of her fruit and rose to answer it. Moments later she returned, leading a tall, shuffling man in a business suit, and called out, “Customer choice.” Kim didn’t look up from her magazine while Beth drew a languorous hand up her calf and cooed, “Hey man.” I placed a towel over my lap. Without looking up from the carpet, the man pointed toward Beth, who crawled up and out of the beanbag chair. “You live in San Francisco?” she inquired in a surprisingly pert voice, as the two strolled arm-in-arm out of the room.
In the following hour, the women took turns answering the door while I felt myself being drawn down, sinking, a sensation that, along with the headache (and the sprung sofa cushions?), made me feel like I was drowning. Close to mortifying tears, I silently crafted a speech in which I explained that I was so sorry, but I’d made a terrible mistake and had to go home. Then the doorbell rang and when Kim answered it, I overheard her say something about “a white girl.” When she returned, she slipped two 10’s into the desk drawer and said that the man was a regular and I should go see him in room 2. My panic must have been obvious because she moved toward me and murmured encouragingly that I should just rub him all over and that if I was nice to him, he’d be nice to me. She lifted my arm to prod me off the sofa and pressed a condom into my hand. With a gentle push, she propelled me in the direction of the hall.
I walked, burdened with the sure knowledge that I was a 29-year-old, overweight, plain-faced woman. I entered the dimly-lit little room, where a man was lying face down on a wooden massage table, naked except for a towel draped over his buttocks. Gasping for a full breath, my voice quavered, “Would you like a massage?”
Using lotion from a bedside bottle, I rubbed his shoulders. “You must get sick of men’s bodies,” he said. I stammered, summoning myself to explain the situation, but then thought better of it. He might not want an amateur. He said that he wanted to have sex and turned his head enough that I saw that he was a pink-cheeked Asian. Things were moving along, but what about the money? He said he could pay 50 and I said that I thought I was supposed to get more. He said he only had 60. He was sorry, but it was all he had. When he reached for his trousers and fumbled through the pockets, a wave of relief poured over me—he was as inept and uncertain as me. I took a lungful of air and he undid my bra and felt my breasts from behind. I turned and we kissed and touched each other. For the first time since getting Kim’s call that morning, I was in familiar territory. Sex was one thing at the parlor that I was at least familiar with and knew how to do.
“I wish you were my wife,” he whispered fervidly.
It was the last thing I expected him to say and it made something shift in me. No longer preoccupied by my inadequacies, I felt suddenly capable, even generous and full of largesse. I handed him the foil-wrapped rubber Kim had pressed into my hand and we knelt and leaned back. He had a hard time finding the right place, so I guided him inside.
Afterward, after we waved goodbye, I flung a clean sheet over the massage table, rearranged bottles on the side table and rubbed lotion up my arms. The apricot smell reminded me, fondly already, of my customer, and that got me wondering when I’d last had sex. It had been an afternoon, maybe four months before, when Marco and I’d had a fight but ended up in bed. After I’d essentially ended things with Marco, I had a hard time staying away and, even now, I worried that I’d end up going back to him. Marco had said that he’d take me back. Not that it would be easy, he’d explained, but he was “open to it.” That phrase contained within it the warning that I needed to be open too. Open to his rules, which meant accepting his affairs with other women. Well, I’d put significant distance between us now! He’d never forgive this!
Grinning, I threw myself into the beanbag chair that Beth, now curled on the sofa, had vacated. Lili, crouched by a hot plate, cracked an egg and asked how my customer had been. I told them about the 60 dollars, hoping the amount wasn’t shameful. Lili stirred the egg into a steaming broth that swam with tiny silver fish. She said that I’d done all right, but that I should charge much more. A lot of guys like cheap girls, she said, casting a disparaging glance toward Beth, who made a face showing that she didn’t like the smell of Lili’s food.
Beth was suddenly full of advice too, purring, “Say, Oh you want to have a good time? He’ll think, you know, you’ll make love. But then do him with your hand, like this.” She gestured like a bartender shaking a drink. Beth tapped out a Salem, lit up and, looking at me, said, “You’ll do okay. You got a good body.” I said that I wished that I was slim like her. Exhaling, Beth placed a hand on her ribs, feeling them up and down.
Lili moved into an overstuffed chair, leveled her gaze at me and said, “When a guy want to make love, say it’s 200.” I frowned, wondering if those were real prices or if she was just boasting when Lili shot back, “Later he call you whore, tramp. Maybe you go to jail, ruin everything in your life. And you can’t ask 200 dollar? You got be smart. You got to know what you worth.” After a brief pause for emphasis, she continued: “And make him say, I’m not a cop. Cops supposed to tell the truth, but they tricky.”
Before long Lili and Beth were with customers while beauteous Kim finished off a plate of barbeque brought by a besotted customer. I marveled at the flood of advice I’d just received, in contrast to how tight-lipped everyone had been earlier. Clearly seeing a customer was passing a test, and I was no longer a questionable outsider. Not to say that I was one of them. I was white, a college student, a native English speaker and not a junkie, so I was different from them. Or so I told myself. Anyway, I’d passed a hurdle and felt welcomed.
When the doorbell rang, Kim told me to answer it and I was heartened to see a slightly-built, round-faced man, prosperous in a gray linen suit. I sent him to take a shower and took the 20 dollar upfront money to Kim. When I turned to go, she raised a slim hand and told me to wait. “Show him who’s boss. You tame tiger, you wait him long enough,” she said. I laughed, giddy at being so colorfully instructed.
Kim gave me a long look and asked how old I was. “Twenty-six,” I lied. Kim said it was best if I told customers that I was 20. I asked Kim if she lied about her age, and she smiled demurely and said that she lied about everything. Feeling warm toward her, I ventured softly, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Like, how do I ask for the money?”
Kim spoke in a whisper, though we were alone. “Say you’re a country girl who’s come to the city to help your sister. They feel sorry for you and be generous.” I nodded, but was dubious that anyone but lovely Kim could get away with such a preposterous line.
Back in the little room, my customer was undressed and lying face down on the massage table. When he asked if he could get sex, my head was swimming with the advice I’d received that afternoon. I was about to say that I was a country girl when the guy said he wanted a hand job and could pay 50. Later, as he dressed, he asked, “You know why I come here?” I shook my head. “My wife and I got nothing in common. She reads romances, see, and I read pornography.”
After Kim and I agreed on a weekly schedule, I was ready to go home. As I reached out to embrace and thank her for giving me a chance, Kim stiffened, but allowed herself to be briefly enfolded. She smelled like roses. As I closed the door, she was straightening out a wrinkle in her white jumpsuit.
Driving home, I probed my motives for going to work at a massage parlor. I wondered, was I insane? Things hadn’t been easy with my family growing up, or with Marco, who I was divorcing, but still I didn’t think I wasn’t crazier than anybody else.
I wondered where was the remorse, the self-reproach? What I’d done was universally considered wrong, but my immediate and pressing need for money won out easily over moral precepts. If I had lax ethics, I hoped only that might work for me. Maybe I could stand things that other people couldn’t. And if so, lucky me! I’d use whatever I had to get an advantage in the world.
What about danger though? Might one of those guys harm me? Lili had been raped and knifed—but that was in Saigon, not downtown San Francisco. I didn’t have the impression that the women I’d met that day were afraid of the men who, from what little I’d seen, seemed nice enough, even deferential.
I glanced at my purse, thick with cash. If I could earn enough money, I wouldn’t have to return, defeated, to Marco. Money was tuition for life in the city and I congratulated myself on the discovery of a means for making it. I’d made my decision, though it was hard to identify myself with the word that went with it: prostitute was beyond the realm of any self-definition I’d ever imagined.
I felt celebratory, but kept my swelling spirits in check as I approached Stella and Nicole, who sat cross-legged on the stoop in front of Maren’s apartment. Kneeing aside Nicole’s golden retriever, I made a place for myself on the uneven steps and watched Stella snatch three jacks with each bounce of the small red ball. “Foursies,” she announced, tossing the tiny ball a foot in the air. I exclaimed at her skill and asked how their day had been. Stella smiled mischievously and pulled a lint-laden Tootsie Roll Pop from her pants pocket. She offered a lick to the dog, who lapped it greedily, and then popped the candy into her own mouth and murmured, “Yum!”
Nicole called Stella a lunatic. Stella patted the dog’s head and said cheerfully that the dog’s mouth was cleaner than ours. Amidst their snorting guffaws, Maren’s voice, calling the girls inside, came through the metal screen door behind us.
Maren’s apartment was decorated floor to ceiling in shades of yellow. A butter-colored sofa was piled with creamy pillows in front of an apricot-hued rag rug. I leaned against a saffron-colored club chair as Maren pushed a lock of blond hair off her lovely face and looked at me expectantly. Clearly she wanted to talk as we often did, enjoying long conversations in which we discussed our children or joked and commiserated about the long odds of finding an unattached heterosexual man in San Francisco.
I was brimming with what I’d done that day and bursting to tell the story, but never considered doing so. Maren was kindhearted and open-minded, but I didn’t think she’d approve of illegal depravity on the part of the mother of her child’s good friend. Desperate to be out of there, I thanked her for taking care of Stella and promised to be in touch.
Outside, I proposed Chinese food and Stella said she was starved. Our neighborhood was a hillside village of small businesses, low-rise apartment buildings, and single-family houses. We walked past a Sufi bookstore and a hardware store to the Pagoda, where a blonde in a kimono showed us to our booth. Stella poured tea from a ceramic pot and we ordered sweet and sour pork and Happy Family. We used chopsticks, even though they slowed us down.
Throughout dinner Stella lobbied me, as she’d done since we’d left Marco in Chico and arrived in the city six weeks before, to let her adopt a pet. “It doesn’t even have to be a dog,” she said, attempting negotiation. I nodded noncommittally, even though I thought a pet was a good idea. She exhaled soberly and leveled her eyes at me. And then, lucky me, the cookies arrived on a dragon-decorated tray. Stella’s fortune promised that she’d achieve her dreams and mine foretold that I’d travel on business and pleasure. While Stella attempted to balance a chopstick on her index finger, I paid for supper with one of the pink-cheeked Asian’s 20s. Within the civil confines of the booth, fulfilling the roles of mother and restaurant patron, the very existence of the Paradise massage parlor seemed farfetched. I put an extra five on the little dragon tray. The tip was an investment: an offering to the gods, a payoff. I’d crossed over, stepped into unknown, forbidden territory, the rewards of which were obvious, the dangers less so. Night fell as we walked home and the globed street lamps began to glow.
At bedtime, Stella and I took turns reading aloud alternating pages from Treasure Island. When it was my turn, Stella was quiet and, with her slim arms folded across her chest, her gaze remained concentrated on a drawing of a three-masted ship. I asked if she was okay and she glanced at me warily and said she missed Daddy. Tears pooled in her eyes. I murmured that I knew it was hard. Neither of us said anything after that. Like every parent, I wanted my child to be happy and healthy, to thrive and grow, but there was something else, too. Stella’s well-being was a verdict on my life. When she was happy it felt like a blessing, and likewise her distress seemed like an indictment of me and of my choices. I’d been the one who’d insisted on leaving our home in Chico. It was because of me that Stella had to adjust to a new school and city, and life away from her father. Because it was her nature, she was usually sunny and bright, but seeing her unhappy, I knew that the consequences of my decisions came down hardest on her.
After a while, I kissed her head, went into the kitchen and sat at the table, where I wrote a check and letter to the landlord, imploring him for a little more time and promising that there’d be more on the way soon. I picked up my coffee mug and, in a habitual gesture, rubbed the soft spot on my finger where my wedding ring used to be. I thought back to the first time I’d met Marco when he was teaching a music appreciation class to freshmen at Chico State, where I’d gone to school to get away from the Midwest deep freeze. Like every other girl in the class, I was smitten with the teacher, his brown eyes and leonine mane of shoulder-length hair. My seatmate, who liked him too, whispered, “Can you believe it? Doesn’t he look just like James Dean?”
The following year, my father died of a heart attack and, after that, there was no more money for school. I was at a loss, in shock and grief, but I didn’t want to go back to Minneapolis, so I got a job at a Chico grocery store. And then, one day, when I was stocking the deli case, I saw the music teacher, leonine-maned Marco, putting wine into a cart. Feeling bold, I inquired teasingly, “Going to a party?” He looked me straight on and asked, “Do I know you?” I explained that I’d taken his class, and then he asked, “You want to come?”
After the party, Marco invited me back to his place, where he had a lot of records and art made by people he knew. He talked about interesting things: food, movies, music, politics. I’d thought that we’d have a one night stand, but for months after we spent hours on a mattress on the floor, covered by a Mexican blanket, talking, listening to music, having sex and smoking pot. We hiked in the Sierra foothills and he knew about plants and geology. Marco cooked delicious food, foreign dishes like moussaka that I’d never tasted before, and taught me about music and books, orgasms and garlic. I was a goner, completely in his thrall.
And full of all those memories of falling in love with Marco, I buckled. I understood in a moment that what I’d done that day was terrible, irrevocable and unforgivable. How could I ever return to him after what I’d done? I must never tell him! How stupid I’d been to come here, to cut myself adrift without a clue about the direction I was headed or where I might end up. Perhaps I’d lost my mind. I certainly couldn’t trust my judgment. How could I have been so stupid? No one must ever know. It would be a secret forever, revealed not even on my death bed.
Eventually I went to bed and, lying there, my mind then turned to other thoughts, more recent, of grievances, of being hurt and humiliated by Marco, of being lied to again and again. And then I thought about the day I’d just had and about the parlor. I’m different than I was this morning. I’m ready to be part of something. Whatever awaits, I’ll give myself over to it. Be smart, Emma, be smart.
I Receive an Ultimatum and an Offer of Help,
Am Witness to Violence and Consider My Options.
For almost a month, I’d been attending school three days a week and working two at the parlor when I arrived one morning to find Beth pacing, complaining that her bones hurt and saying that she needed a fix. She took a hard glance at Kim, who was using a pumice stone to remove stray hairs from her underarm. When Beth picked up the phone, Kim cast her a frank, disapproving look. “I’m not doing nothing,” Beth said, feigning an innocent laugh. Into the phone, she said, “It’s me, where you at?” When Beth put down the phone, Lili asked if that was her husband on the phone and Beth said, “Yeah, and he’s bringing me steak and fries.” Lili said why don’t you go out yourself, and Beth said that Damon would bring her anything she needed, adding proudly that he’d kill her if she left the parlor. Lili stuck a fork inside a jar and took a bite of something green.
Kim motioned me over and explained that the parlor owner, Yoko, said I had to get my license by the end of next week. Since Lili had mentioned it my first day, I’d discovered that parlor masseuses were, incredibly, licensed by the San Francisco Police Department. And getting a license required enrolling at a legitimate massage school (which cost three hundred dollars) and registering, with my full name and identification, with the city police. I didn’t want to do any of that, but without my job at the parlor my life in San Francisco was over. I said I’d take care of it.
I was still fretting about what to do about the license when I agreed to take a customer nobody else wanted: a small, smiley Asian named Billy, who washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant and paid me sixty dollars in small, greasy bills. He wanted to hold my hands behind my back and asked me to say things like, “No, no, I beg you, don’t make me” and “I’m a virgin, please no.” Despite his dominant fantasies, Billy didn’t frighten me because he was so slightly built that I could have taken him, if necessary, and moreover, he spoke such poor English that I knew he wasn’t a cop—the second of the twin threats. Billy turned out to be extraordinarily accommodating and even jerked himself off—to spare me the trouble, he said. Before escorting him to the door, he gave me an extra twenty and asked what days I worked because he wanted to come back and see me.
In the living room Kim was talking to a slim man, about thirty, who sat legs apart, one hand balled into a fist. The guy gave me an obvious once-over as Kim complained to him about Beth’s drug habit and stoned-out behavior. I figured he was Damon, Beth’s husband or pimp or whatever. He licked his fingers and smoothed his hair as he assured Kim that he’d straighten Beth out. Then she walked in, smiling and glassy-eyed. Inching herself close, she touched Damon’s arm and called him “Honey.” Without a glance at her, Damon stood and walked toward the door. Beth followed, pleading for him to take her with him. Damon hissed that she should get to work and Beth let out a sickening giggle and slumped into a chair. Turning to me, she said that she’d seen me giving Damon the eye.
“What?” I said.
“I saw that look,” Beth said.
“You trying to make time with him?” she demanded. I shook my head. “Are you?” She grabbed my arm.
“Let go her,” Kim said evenly.
After a long silence, Beth pointed at her chest and said to the room at large, “You think I’m nothing, but I’m not happy. Anybody says they’re happy doing this shit, they’re lying. But what can I do?” The place seemed momentarily suffocating, as though all of Beth’s misery had sucked the air out of the room. Kim picked up a magazine and I sat quietly, wishing that Beth and her problems would disappear. I had my own problem—the damned massage license— to figure out.
That afternoon I did a guy who, though seventy years old and nothing special, got me sexually aroused. The fantasy dissolved as quickly as it had come over me, but I was left with a measure of affection toward him for having stirred something in me. I watched him dress, admired the pale softness of his body and, as I let him out the front door, let him kiss me on the cheek.
I settled into one of the big chairs and was intending to pump Lili for advice about the massage license when she said, “You like that ol’ man.” I thought, What? How could she know? She couldn’t! She dropped her jaw and sucked her cheeks, imitating someone decrepit, then leveled her eyes on me and said that I let the men kiss me lot. Lili had radar for detecting everyone’s weaknesses and blunders. I said that I’d felt sorry for him and Lili responded with a “Phht.” In Lili’s world, everybody had one characteristic and hopeless stupidity was mine. Maybe she was right, but she was no genius either. A week before, I’d found her sitting at the desk, turning over a bunch of stacked coins. She’d explained, as though stating a law of nature, “Head to tail, turn bad luck good.”
I’d asked, “You believe that juju?” And she said that we all need luck to survive and I’d find out soon enough that she was right.
Beth, suddenly wakened, lurched forward but, stumbling on a high heel, fell back. A moment later, as if the earlier events had never happened, she extended her slim arm to display a gold bracelet and bragged about how Damon said that nothing was too good for her and that working girls should live like queens. Lili looked up from a plate of barbecued ribs and asked sharply what Damon did for a living. Beth shifted in the low-spread chair and said that she’d told Lili before, that Damon was a businessman who worked real hard and spoiled her. Lili’s face indicated disbelief.
Later that afternoon, Lili got a client and then Kim came back, looking tired. Hoping to keep the mood light and forestall any wild accusations from Beth, I asked Kim who’d given her the bouquet of flowers that morning. Instead of answering, she said in a clipped tone that Beth and I should go clean the sauna. Out of Kim’s view, Beth stubbed her cigarette out on the threadbare carpet. Alarmed, I stood and headed toward the hall. As I left the room, I heard Beth ask, “What’s her name?”
“Emma. Her name’s Emma,” Kim said, sounding like the exasperated mother of a small child.
I was scrubbing tile and grousing to myself about how unfair it was that I was the only one who ever did any work when Lili strolled in, drumming her red nails on the tiled wall. She said that she could get me a license for a hundred dollars and I wouldn’t have to go to school or register with the police. I said that that would be great and fished out some bills, which Lili stuffed into the toe of her shoe. When I thanked her effusively, her expression, typically brash and sure of herself, lit up with a tentative, proud smile as she explained that it was her husband who’d get it for me and that he could get other things, like airline tickets, too.
It was approaching five o’clock and the end of my shift. When I went to the living room to gather my stuff, Kim shot me a keep-quiet look and Lili looked oddly impassive. I wondered if somebody had done something wrong, and hoped it wasn’t me. Abruptly I heard a thud from the hall and saw Damon twisting Beth’s arm behind her back. Beth looked beseechingly toward Kim and let out a wail. I put my fist in my mouth and Kim stepped forward and demanded that they leave, now! Damon brushed past us, spinning Beth around and pushing her backward out the front door. Kim bolted the door while Lili and I ran to the front window and watched Damon shove Beth into a double-parked Monte Carlo. Moments later, the car peeled out, passing within inches of pedestrians who leapt to get out of its way.
It occurred to me that, as a native-born American and the most educated of our group, I should advise them about our criminal justice system. I explained that we needed to call the police. Lili let out a whoop and a derive laugh. She said that Beth was a drug addict with a pimp and deserved whatever she got. Then, changing tack unconvincingly, she said that Beth needed to be with her family and friends.
I said that we should send police to Beth’s house. To my own ears, the plan sounded unlikely, but we had to do something. Kim said that Beth had problems and, if we called the police, it would only make more trouble for her. Leaning close, Kim smiled confidentially and asked if I knew of any other girls who wanted jobs, especially American girls with big breasts who weren’t junkies. I nodded noncommittally. At that moment, I decided that I wasn’t coming back. No way was I working at a place where a woman got beat up and nobody did anything about it. I glanced around for Lili, thinking to retrieve the hundred dollars I’d given her for the license, but she’d suddenly disappeared, which made me wonder if I shouldn’t get out of there, too.
Riding home on the J-Church, I replayed the day’s events against the buzz of trolley wires. The assault had been like a scene from a movie, and not a feature in which I’d ever imagined myself playing a part. And though I hadn’t planned it, my role wasn’t innocent. It was no coincidence that Kim was recruiting non-junkie, big-breasted white girls like me just minutes after Beth was hauled off. I wished that I knew where Beth lived but, even if I did, what could I do? Was I willing to go find her and face Damon? Was I willing to offer Beth safe refuge? The answers were no.
I had a hard time getting to sleep that night thinking about what I should do, which was call the police, and what I was willing to do, which was nothing. I thanked god I didn’t know where Beth lived. When I closed my eyes, I felt as though I was spinning and falling and, when I finally slept, I dreamed that Beth was grabbing at me and calling for help. Some hours later, I awoke overcome with panic. Looking around the dim room, everything looked shattered, fragmented by shadows. The corners of the room did not appear to meet.
I’d crossed some awful threshold, beyond normal life and into something sickening. Is this me? I thought. I pictured Beth’s frightened face and felt ashamed of what I’d witnessed that day. It was all part of what I’d become. Is this my life? I sat up and peered into the dresser mirror. “You’re a prostitute,” I whispered accusingly. The word evoked an image of something subhuman, monstrous. What I’d mistaken for a viable means to stay on in San Francisco was in fact something irrevocable and unforgivable. How could I ever go back to Marco or to my former life? How stupid I’d been to come here, to cut myself adrift without a clue about the direction I was headed or where I might end up. Perhaps I’d lost my mind. I certainly couldn’t trust my judgment. I was stupid! No one must ever know. It seemed as if one minute I was a normal person and the next I was something else entirely. A criminal. A what? That word again, with the queer, foreign sound. Glancing in the mirror, I didn’t look like one, my hair sticking out at odd angles, childlike, my torso ensnared by the pale sheet I’d battled in troubled sleep.
I turned my eyes away from the mirror and remembered with relief that I’d already decided to quit. I’ll never tell! I’m the same person I was before and no one will ever know. I imagined the territory ahead, where there was light, order and common ground. I pictured Marco and me in our old house, a sun-drenched bungalow, me in the kitchen and him in his study, books piled around. I imagined Stella with her friends, playing in the overgrown backyard.
I savored the scene, but eventually I had another realization. Leaving the parlor meant returning home, in defeat and for good. My new life and any possibilities it might offer would be lost. I pictured Marco’s smile when he heard that I was returning. He’d be happy, but he wouldn’t make it easy. I’d have to pay for having left and for taking Stella with me. I remembered one of our arguments over his infidelities and how he’d smiled and said softly that he could tell by my tears how much I loved him.
I imagined calling Kim and telling her that I wouldn’t be back. I pictured her telling the others. Lili would gnaw a piece of barbecue and gloat, “More for us.” I pictured Beth, drowsy in her chair, mumbling, “Who’s Emma?” Kim, who took nothing personally, would telephone the owner, Yoko, who I hadn’t met and who’d be the only one disappointed, losing her big-breasted white girl. I thought of the insignificance of the impression I’d made, of my short, unimportant passage in the city. Really, I told myself, I can always quit. If I work a bit longer, I can save enough to get us through a few more months at least. And anyway, it was Beth’s pimp husband, not a customer, who caused trouble, and my situation had nothing to do with hers. The attack had been horrifying, but wouldn’t the parlor be more wholesome without Beth’s doped-up presence? I snuck a final look at myself in the mirror and hazarded a smile.
The following morning I opened my eyes, a shipwreck survivor surveying her surroundings. I smoothed the coverlet on my bed and warily eyed my milk-blue dresser. The eggshell pastels of morning illuminated the wall opposite the windows. Columns of dust played in the sunlight. The hum of bustling street life one floor below penetrated the window’s thin glass. Horns, voices and the screech of truck gears sang out. The tumult of the previous day and night was over. Maybe there was somewhere else I could work, somewhere better than the down-market Paradise. I’d check out the possibilities, look at other parlors, see what opportunities there might be.
That Saturday Stella and I went to a neighborhood garage sale, where she picked out a Nancy Drew mystery and I found a treasure: an architectural detail—a wooden angel with a three-foot wingspan and a serene smile. The guy selling stuff said he’d found her in the rubble of a demolished building. At home, I hung my prize on a big nail on the wall over my dresser so that I could see her as I lay in bed and, inspired by her ecclesiastical appearance, lit candles underneath her as though I were a Catholic. I needed help and promised, in return, to exercise whatever virtues I could: thrift, caution, modesty. I’d lay low and turn my homework in on time. If my good fortune at finding a way to stay on in the city would only continue, I promised never to flaunt it or take it for granted. Like Lili with her juju coins, I’d cultivate luck.
by Kate Marquez
Runner Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize