A Delacorte Review True Short Story
Mia paced in front of the building entrance below a sign that read “Foot Spa.” She wore a gray parka against the New York chill and suede over-the-knee boots. Men walked by and as they did she approached them and said, “Massage?”
A man stopped and followed her inside. They climbed the narrow staircase, passing the travel agency on the second floor. Two sets of massage chairs sat in the dim main room. A wall-mounted multi-screen monitor showed footage from six surveillance cameras overlooking the front entrance, the back door, and two staircases. Above a loveseat hung a row of red Christmas stockings. Each bore a name. One was for Mia.
Mia had been working here for six months and business was not good. Mia knew that if she wanted to work more she would need more customers and for that she would need to walk downstairs and approach men on the street. Her boss told everyone that business would be better if they shortened the massages and focused on the “happy ending.”
Mia was fifty-one but looked a decade younger. Her face was oval and unlined. Her hair was honey-blonde, and her eyes were shaped like almonds. Her voice was strong and assertive, though her manner was dainty. Mia’s iPhone rang. It was a client. He told her in English that he was in the hospital and so could not keep his afternoon appointment. She asked if he would come after the hospital visit. He offered no answer. Mia was disappointed and tired.
When she was on the street Mia knew that men assumed she was offering herself for sex. Earlier in the day she had finished massaging a customer’s back when he flipped over and asked her to have sex with him. He offered her a $100 tip. Mia told him she could only help him with her hands. The customers often groped her. “There is nothing I can do to stop them from doing that,” says Mia.
Seven years ago, when Mia was still living in China, she went to a visa broker to help her enter the United States. She had grown up in village and had not wanted to take over her parents’ farm. She worked as a cashier. She was married then. Mia did not speak well of her ex-husband, “a lazy person with no ambition of improving our financial situation.” They argued often and hit each other for what Mia felt were petty things. “I wanted a divorce,” Mia says, “but my parents and brothers didn’t support me.” They were afraid she would become a financial burden, so no one would take her in: “I cried all the way when returning to my husband’s place from my parents.” Things at work weren’t going well either. She feared she would lose her job and would not find another. So she got in touch with a woman she knew who was living in New York. The woman encouraged Mia to join her, saying she would earn a lot more money in America.
But now, seven years later, Mia’s boss was taking two-thirds of what the men paid her. She could make $100 or $200 in tips if she offered sex, though some clients tipped as little as $40. Her boss “now tends to recruit younger faces who are more willing to offer sex service. So I decided to leave.”
She rented a twenty-one-square-foot room to set up her own massage business. A massage table claimed much of the interior with two narrow stools placed on each side. The room was equipped with a sink and a microwave. The room’s magenta lighting and Chinese soft pop songs created a therapeutic ambiance.
Now on her own, Mia began her workdays at noon. One afternoon two customers visited. She called them “amigos,” her nickname for Mexican men. But Mia knew that these men were not going to be regular customers. One was a young man who could not ejaculate in the allotted service time. It was the second time this had happened to him and Mia understood enough about the men to know that men with performance problems seldom returned. Losing another client frustrated Mia. Her arms and back ached from servicing him. All that work for nothing. Mia sets the timer for fifty-five minutes. This way the customer knows he is not being cheated on time. She places heated stones on their bodies to help them relax.
Mia’s English was not good enough to understand the nuances of conversations. Sometimes a client would be over an hour late, and Mia did not have enough English words to better negotiate the schedule. Today, she didn’t have time to eat lunch because she worked on three customers until 6 PM.
Both the first and second clients failed to show up on time. Mia tried to reach the second man in vain. She went to the supermarket to grab spicy noodle soup and a chicken for dinner. But before she could get in line for the butcher to clean the chicken, the client called to say that he had just arrived at the parlor. Anxious about losing a returning customer, especially at the start of her own business, Mia left the chicken at the shop and dashed the four blocks back to work.
“I can’t afford to lose a customer,” says Mia. At the end of the massage, the second client didn’t reach orgasm either. As she wondered what went wrong, Mia’s phone rang again. Another man was on his way.
For the first ten months after arriving in New York, Mia stayed in an unlicensed hostel in Flushing, which cost $8 a night. Secretive in nature, these apartment units were advertised on dadi360.com, a Chinese-language resource for the diaspora in New York. They offered short or long stays. Hostel managers ask potential tenants to wait at one building, sometimes up to half an hour, before leading them to another address through a labyrinth of residential blocks. The owners divided properties into multiple bedrooms that each hold three or four single beds. Tenants living in the same apartment shared a kitchen and a bathroom. Some units were filthy.
Mia found her first job at a massage parlor by calling the establishments listed in the classified section of local Chinese-language newspapers. “I was younger and beautiful. Everyone wanted to hire me. But as someone just entering the industry, I didn’t know how things worked. “I was frightened by the scene where masseuses had to be naked to perform a massage at one establishment. I also didn’t know I had to stay on the premises during breaks to wait for customers. My friend who received a commission for my visa brokerage didn’t give me any advice.” Mia felt dejected.
She realized that her former colleague was only interested in taking the commission and had no desire for friendship. Without any other acquaintances, Mia spent her first Chinese New Year in New York miserably alone in the hostel. She disobeyed the instructions of the parlor manager frequently, going outside the premises for a break when there were no customers. She failed to hold on to her first job in Flushing, and moved to a massage parlor on Long Island that paid less.
Mia found it hard to make friends in New York. A twelve-hour work shift six days a week left her with little free time. She often spent her days off catching up with housework and recovering from the physical fatigue. She earned $4,000 a month in Flushing. She believed could have earned double that amount if she had worked in wealthy neighborhoods outside New York State, such as Florida and Boston, where there were fewer competitors and higher tips.
The person Mia cared for and missed the most was her daughter, her only child. She parted from her when she moved to New York and her daughter was ten. She did not know when she would see her again. Mia cried when she recalled their parting. A year after she arrived in New York, Mia began to search for ways to bring her child over. Someone told her that the girl could apply for programs open to teenage students from abroad. Mia was so excited about the possibility that she called almost every agency listed in two Chinese-language newspapers, World Journal and The Sing Tao Daily. She found a visa broker who charged her $4,000 to organize her daughter’s paperwork, an exorbitant sum for someone already in a $14,800 debt after paying for her own visa.
The child joined her three years later. Mia got up at 7 o’clock every day to prepare the girl’s lunch and dinner in a rice cooker before heading out to work. The top of the cooker was filled with vegetables, and the bottom with rice. During the school lunch break, the girl would come home and feed herself. Mia was very proud of her daughter’s academic performance. She earned an A in English. Her daughter graduated from high school and left home for college. Mia sent her $1000 a month. When her daughter came home she slept until noon. This bothered Mia. It was not clear to Mia whether he daughter knew how she makes the money she sent her and that she spent on her clothing. They have never talked about it. It would not be acceptable for her daughter to ask. Mia suspects her daughter’s friends may have told her something. But they did not discuss it.
Mia wanted her daughter to move back to New York because her daughter had a friend whose family was wealthy. Mia believed that by being close to this friend, her daughter stood a better chance of getting a job with the family’s company in China. She wanted her to study business administration, to prepare for such a prosperous future.
Mia had a boyfriend whom she met on WeChat. He had a green card and a wife. After his wife arrived he could no longer spend the night with Mia. She missed being held because then she could fall asleep easily. Back then she would wake up before him and go out to get bread and coffee for his breakfast. She would squeeze toothpaste onto his toothbrush before he woke up. “I do all these things because I care,” says Mia, “and I want him to remember how nice I am to him and he’ll miss me when he’s not with me.”
He was a jealous man, even though he had a wife. He would get suspicious when Mia would come home with new clothing because he was sure some other man had bought them for her. He got so angry that he flipped over the table. Mia suspected that meanwhile he looked up his old mistresses. She activated the “People Nearby” function on WeChat to see whom he was meeting. She says, “I confronted him many times. I was so mad when I saw his teasing messages sent to other women. We argue a lot for this.”
Mia measured the men in her life by the man she first loved. He was handsome and smart. He was also a criminal. They broke up when he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Mia did not need a man to be rich. “If I had cared about money,” she says, “I could have married a rich foreign old man who are twenty years older than me and wait for him to die. But that “would be against my heart.” Mia’s heart was with her boyfriend even though “he kept lying to me.”
It was difficult for Mia’s boyfriend to see her at night. Sometimes he came to see her in the daytime when she was working. He would want to have sex in the room where she worked but Mia refused. “I don’t want to mix my life with work.”
Mia found solace on WeChat Moments. Her motto was “to live like a sacred lotus.” She posted images of traveling, nice clothing, and flowers that her boyfriend had given her. She boasted about her daughter, but did so humbly.
She wanted her friends in China to see only the portrait of a happy life.