Fiction by Elaine Barnard
“Thuy,” Tony called from below, “someone has come for you.”
Tony was only twenty-two years old, yet he owned several massage parlors
in Vietnam. The girls could not understand how he acquired such wealth at such
a young age, as they can hardly support their children and husbands, that is, those
who have husbands. They often brought their little ones to Mexico Massage.
Tony did not mind as long as the babies were quiet, so we made sure we had the
sleeping teddy bears to lull them while we played cards in silence until a
customer arrived. Tony did not like to hear us laugh. He said it disturbed his
concentration on the accounts.
It was now late in the afternoon. We have been waiting all day for someone
to come. Most of our business was in the evening. Nevertheless, we must wait
here all the day.
We waited in the big upstairs room with shaded windows overlooking Truc
Bach Lane. The sweet smell of fried banana drifted up from the street below
through our open windows. Sometimes, at the end of the night, the old vendor
brought her leftovers up to us. They were heavy with grease by that hour. Bits of
cinnamon burned their edges, but we had not eaten all day so they were delicious.
Below our waiting room were showers and steam rooms. Most of our
clients left their shoes in the hallway and stopped there first to purify themselves
before the massage. Of course there was an extra charge, but Tony would not
allow us to serve anyone who had not stopped to bathe while we covered their
cots with white sheets and pillows that we laundered that morning, beating them
clean on the floors of the showers.
The small massage rooms lined the hallway so that many clients might be
served at the very same time. Tony said that was good business. Tony knew
about such things that we did not understand, having fled our villages to make our
way in the big, noisy city of Hanoi.
Today, we dressed in white mini-skirts and tops. They were of a very
smooth material that shone in the dark. I think it was called “satin.” I liked to
wear this outfit when I gave the massage, as it was easier to straddle the
customer, to pull their arms and legs in many directions, relieving their stress.
Usually, I started on their heads, tugging strands of hair or massaging their
scalps if the hair was thin or missing. Then I smoothed the wrinkles from their
faces with my thumbs. It was like kneading bread dough. I pressed with thumb
and finger, waited until the muscles relaxed before I took the head and swiveled
it side to side as you would a doll’s. At that moment the clients gasped as their
tension released. And that was what I wished because my name meant “water.”
Water was a force of nature thus I have been blessed with this work, helping
people feel as if water were flowing through them, sweet rivulets in all parts of
Some clients wished only to have their heads massaged. If so, I spent
much time on the scalp and hair line, tugging, smoothing, until the face became
ten years younger.
Sometimes they wished only the feet. And so, with my own feet, I pressed
the tension from theirs, released the eternal ache that caused them to stumble or
hesitate crossing the traffic that the young navigated with such grace.
Today, an old woman arrived. She wanted a full body massage. She
would not let me undress her, so I left the room for a moment, peeking in when
she was lying on the table with the towel about her. “Where are you from?” I
asked as I adjusted the towel that she placed over her nakedness.
“From the U.S.,” she mumbled. I could see she did not wish to speak,
only to sleep the half sleep of those who came to me, the dream state that was
somewhere in the oblivion of all care.
She was a slim woman. I was grateful for that, as it made my work easier.
Massaging through layers of fat was never simple, and sometimes the Americans
have many layers.
“I am from Ho Chi Minh City,” I said when I was certain I had made her
comfortable. I was really from Hanoi but I said I was from Ho Chi Minh City
because that was a distance from Hanoi. People liked to ask about places that
were distant. I made up stories about Ho Chi Minh City to please them, to
make myself more mysterious. Hanoi was a place they saw every day, so it
did not interest them. The recent floods made our streets almost impassable.
They were filled with peels of apple, orange, and banana. Mice and rats lay
on their backs, their stomachs facing the sky, their little legs extended as if in
prayer. Nothing could save them when the rains came as they do every year.
But I am told this was the worst we have seen in thirty-seven years. Many
people have died. Others were homeless, wandering the streets of Hanoi like
ghosts. Even the dogs seemed to pity them.
I was grateful to live on the third floor of DC: 35 Chau Long-Truc Bach.
The other girls returned to their villages as soon as the rains began. Tony
barricaded the lower door with sand bags. No one was allowed to enter for
the massage. No one dared to enter as the water rose higher. Traffic stalled,
motor bikes were covered with plastic bags stolen from the market. We could
not buy rice or oranges, noodles or vegetables. Downstairs, Tony and his
mistresses ate what little they had. I was not one of his mistresses, so nothing
was left for me except a spoonful of sticky rice and a saucer of tea. I grew so
thin I hardly had the strength to climb down the dark stairway to receive my
portion. Finally, when they remembered, they brought up a bowl of rice soup
or green tea, chastising me for being so thin, telling me that if I did not grow
stronger, they would leave me to the floods, let me float in the water with my
legs apart to accompany the rats that glided so noiselessly past their shop, their
“You will float to Mexico,” they said, though none of them had ever been
there. They did not even know where Mexico was. They got the name from
a magazine. It was a beautiful magazine with photos of Mexican beaches and
ladies lying on tables inside tents having their bodies massaged by pretty young
women. Tony said I was beautiful enough to give the massage even though I
might not be beautiful enough for anything else. And so he gave me the job for
which he did not pay. “Your clients will pay,” he said. “They will tip if you
treat them well.”
Tony charged only 100,000 dong for the massage, less than anywhere
else in Hanoi, so the tips were very small when they came at all. I was hoping
this lady would leave me a big tip.
“Are you married?” I asked. I have been told this was the polite way to
begin a conversation. “Yes,” she breathed between closed lips.
I thought maybe she did not like to talk as I gave the massage, but I asked
anyway. I said, “Do you have children?” She extended one finger.
“Boy or girl?”
“Boy.” A smile crossed her face. I understood her joy, as boys were
also preferred in Vietnam.
“How old are you?” I always asked the age of my clients as I massaged
them. I could tell if they were lying by their skin, soft and supple or like the
rind of a dragon fruit waiting to be sliced.
I never said they were lying. I tried to find something pleasant to say like,
“You are very white. I am Viet, I am dark,” as if their wrinkled white skin was
better to have than my smooth brown one.
“Thank you,” they whispered, probably thinking I was giving them a
This lady was very thin, like a withered doll, so I was careful when I
massaged her arms. It was my custom to slap them, to bring blood to the
surface, to wash away impurities. I slapped her gently, watching her loose
skin jiggle like the flap beneath a turkey’s neck.
“Are you okay?” I peered at her.
She opened her eyes. “Yes,” she smiled from her daydream.
I raised the towel, the signal that she should turn on her stomach. She
obliged with a sigh.
I kneaded her back. It was dry so I asked if I might use some oil. It
was Johnson’s baby oil, made in America. I showed her the bottle. She
laughed, so I knew I had pleased her.
I pummeled her buttocks. They were large for such a small person, an
indication that she spent too much time sitting and so they spread. She left
on her panties so I pulled them down to get at the soft flesh beneath, oiled and
pounded it to the desired firmness. But the desired firmness did not occur no
matter how much I pounded, so I descended to her legs, long and thin like the
loaves of French bread they sold in the market. Her toes were brittle as the
crusts, her thighs spongy as the interior.
I helped her to sit up. By this time she was not embarrassed to reveal her
small, child-like breasts, which I had carefully avoided. Her back was spotted
as a banana too long in the sun. I tried to bleach it with my special potion but
the spots would not fade no matter how much I smoothed them.
“You are very beautiful,” I said as I stared at the clock to make the last
minutes pass quickly. I wished to meet Anh. I heard his motorbike pull onto
the curb below where the lady sat selling papaya until the police rounded the
corner. Then she ran inside our shop before they caught her selling without a
Murmuring other compliments, I helped my client to dress. She wore
very few garments for one so old, but they said that was the way in America.
I waited for her tip, hoping it would be a large one as I worked very hard
to make her feel like water. She showed me 100,000 dong. I motioned, yes,
that was for me, and tried to take it from her hand. But she pointed below
where Tony waited. I followed her down the stone steps, helped her to slip
on the wedged sandals she had left on the staircase.
Tony was dressed today in a black suit and yellow shirt. He smelled of
coconut oil. On his purple tie a palm tree waved. A Mexican girl grinned
beneath his diamond stick pin. His alligator shoes shone as he approached the
My client showed him the bill, 100,000 VND as he advertised in big
electric letters so no one could miss them even in the dark. She presented a
10,000 dong tip for me. For this I might buy two loaves of French bread and
some bananas. I tried to smile.
Tony looked at me and hesitated. She removed our white calling card
from her purse, which read in black letters, MEXICO MASSAGE, 100,000
VND. Tony glanced at my face again. I hoped he would beg something more
for me, but he accepted her dong, creased it between his long nails that I filed
and painted with colorless lacquer on days when we had no customers.
“Okay?” she said.
“Okay—okay,” he waved, ignoring me.
A motorbike rumbled outside, an angry roar that encouraged me. “I am
leaving,” I told Tony as he closed the register.
“You are what?”
“I am leaving,” I repeated. His face clouded as if another storm were
brewing over Truc Bach Lake, another disaster.
“Where will you go?” he said, clicking his nails on the counter. “For girls
like you there is nothing.”
I hurried to the door, my 10,000 dong gripped in my fist. Anh will drive
me around the lake, I thought, my arms hugging his waist. We will buy French
bread and bananas, savor them on a bench as we drink in the moon and kiss
the sun awake.
I rushed outside to tell him I was free from Mexico Massage, free to ride
to Ho Chi Minh City, free to—
“Where is he?” I called to the boys repairing motorbikes at the curb.
“Where is who?” They kept on with their work, wiping the sweat that
oozed from their eyes, trickled down their necks onto their bright T-shirts.
“The one who always comes for me.”
“We did not see him.”
“You must have. I heard his bike. It has a special roar.”
“For you, maybe,” they laughed. “For us they are all the same.”
Elaine Barnard’s previous stories have been published in r.kv.r.y.
quarterly, Kalliope, Sage, Pearl, Timber Creek Review, The Storyteller,
and Writers’ Forum. Earlier in 2009, “Water” was selected as a finalist in
Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open. More information about Barnard is
available on her website, which is located at elainebarnard.com.
“Water” was inspired by several trips to Mexico Massage during a
recent stay in Hanoi studying the history and culture of Vietnam. I was
impressed by the agility and strength of these diminutive masseuses
regardless of the fact that their wages were negligible and their working
conditions sub-standard. I tried to view the world through their eyes,
particularly those of my protagonist Thuy.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 4, Number 2
Copyright © 2009
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors