During the lunch break, while the others went for rice and chicken soup at Barshu on Frith Street, I went to one of those acupuncture/herbal medicine/massage places on Shaftesbury Avenue to try and get some relief from my shoulder and neck pain. A friend had suggested I go for a chair massage. They’re great, she said. And cheap. The pain had been intense all morning (I was on a writing workshop in Soho), so during the hour-long lunch break I went in search of some pain relief. I asked for a fifteen-minute massage. It was just what I needed. Mai Li was short but she was strong; the massage was deep and vigorous. Seated in the chair I was still a couple of inches taller than her, so she had to lean against me when she dug into my shoulders. Maybe she didn’t have to, but she did, and it felt good. I don’t usually like being touched by women, but Mai Li was tough and relentless and she pummeled and pounded, all the while chatting to the woman behind the counter in Chinese, the two of them laughing at, I imagined, my bulk, as well as my butt crack that was sticking out for all passersby to see (if they chanced to look through the window). I’m not sure why I didn’t cover it up – embarrassment, indifference, titillation – but I didn’t.
For the duration of the massage the pain was relieved. I had that feeling with her that I often have with other masseurs, that they approach my body as a challenge, a test to see if they can soften the tension. I’m sure they can’t help thinking about the psychological tension that must be the cause of such taut flesh. When our fifteen minutes were up, we shook hands, I said shei-shei and promised to come back soon.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I said, knowing there was no maybe about it.
When I got to the restaurant, the others had just finished their meal and were chatting over small cups of jasmine tea. I ordered the hot and sour chicken soup and a bowl of rice and we talked about writing and about the tutor, who was encouraging us to write more freely, to discover the stories hidden in our subconscious (or unconscious), to get rid of the internal critic, to write the thing we wouldn’t usually write, the stories that would rock our world, shake them up. In a weird way, we were enjoying her direction – I know I was. Then I told them about Mai Li and how brilliant she was and that I would definitely go back the next day, this time for longer. Someone said they’d be nervous to go into one of those places.
“Me, too,” I said. “But she’s totally legit.”
“Did she make a difference?” the person said.
“Some,” I said.
But I didn’t wait for the next day. I went back to Mai Li as soon as the afternoon writing session was over. I paid my £25 for 35 minutes and was taken downstairs to where the little rooms with the massage tables were, small dimly-lit rooms with white towels and dark walls and a little fan and heater in each room (from what I could make out). I’d seen the rooms earlier that day when I’d gone downstairs to pee before the chair massage. I was looking forward to 35 minutes of the same kind of pummeling.
Mai Li ushered me into the room and then stepped outside for a while. It was a room just big enough to contain a massage table and space for her to move around in, and a chair for me to put my clothes on, though I wasn’t sure how much of them to take off. Maybe she’d just gone to get something: more oil? fresh towels? I didn’t want the embarrassment of her coming back in and me being naked when I wasn’t supposed to be. I’m never sure about the etiquette of things unless the rules are made explicit to me. Stripping and tipping are the two big questions!
She came back with a glass of water. I gestured to my clothes.
“Everything?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “All.”
I left on my briefs and lay down on my stomach, my head in the hole at the top end of the table. There have been brief moments in my life – sometimes days, but often just an hour or two here and there – when I have liked my body, when it has not been a thing of shame or anxiety. Women have taught me to hate my body. My sisters, my mother, and one or two lovers in the past have made me feel that my body is a thing to hide, to be ashamed of. It is not an easy thing for me to lie naked (even with my briefs on) before a woman, vulnerable, my back and arse exposed. Granted, men have ridiculed me, bullied me, but from an early age (maybe even too early) I have known that I was desirable to them.
Even before Mai Li rolled back the rubber band of my briefs, I knew this was not going to be a regular kind of massage. She had intentions. My cock was stirring in response to these intentions. I wouldn’t be far off if I said it’s been almost 15 years since my genitals have responded affirmatively to the touch of a woman. Suddenly, I was looking forward to seeing what would happen when I turned onto my back, but that was still a while away. There was still my arse to deal with.
I usually make sure that my crack is clean before a massage. Whether it’s at the sauna or with the regular guy who comes to my flat, I always get massaged in the nude, and I don’t want to deal with nastiness. I hadn’t planned on getting naked in this; my briefs were meant to stay on. I never imagined I’d be exposing myself like this, definitely not crouching down on the table in a massage parlour in Chinatown, trying to get my underwear off in an elegant fashion, prompted by the forceful suggestion of the masseuse.
“It’s better,” she said, adding something about the oil and that it’s easier to do what she’s doing without the obstruction of the underwear.
What she was doing, though, was getting uncomfortably close to my arsehole, which was not as clean as I would have liked it to be. I clenched a lot, which was not relaxing. My shoulder ached.
A while later, when I turned onto my back – did she just call me darling? – my cock was already semi-hard. It probably had the kind of plumpness that encouraged her to say, as she gave it a light touch with her fingers: “You want me massage here?”
“No, thanks,” I said. It’s okay.”
“Okay,” she said. “No problem. It’s okay.”
Both of us reassuring the other: don’t feel bad about asking, was my subtext; don’t feel bad about refusing, was hers.
And so we continued, me lying there with a hard-on, hoping she might ignore my initial refusal and touch my cock. Did she become less friendly after that? Was she irritated that there’d be no extra tip? Or was she relieved not to have to deal with yet another heavy-breathing gweilo in her small warm room.
Maybe if I hadn’t had plans to meet the German that evening I would have said yes, been intrigued about how far I – or she – would go. Would there have been more on offer than just a hand-job? How much do things like this cost? Who do you give the money to? Was the woman upstairs the madam of the brothel?
I left feeling slightly elated and very horny. I liked being turned on by a woman. I liked that sex with her felt like something I’d be able to do. I like that she touched my body and thought it sexy. I believed her. I believed her because I have known several men from that part of the world who have been turned on by my body, my hairy chest. I like to think that I might go back, if not to Mai Li, then to someone else, to go back to being a teenager taken by an uncle to see a prostitute for his first sexual experience, for her to teach him how to make love to a woman.