Number 58
by M.E. Bergstrom

Thanks again for meeting me early. Pull up a chair, I already got you a drink. Sip slowly, the bartender isn’t shy here. Of course, of course, you’re welcome. Sorry I’m not letting you talk. I’ve always been like this. I blabber when I get nervous. Yack yack yack. Just go with it.

Something happened. I know you’re not a prude. You’ve been in China for a long time and I don’t have to tell you what was special about the massage parlor Alison recommended. I went there tonight. I was just there.

Let’s both take a drink.

At least you won't be as judgy as my friends back home. We live in different worlds and Chicago is nowhere near China. Not that I don’t love them — but really, they are tight ass prissy gossips, every one. I shouldn’t say that, they’re all lovely — and interesting in their own way. It’s not their fault that they’re afflicted by small mindedness. For them, flirting with the barista is daring, buying a Tesla is cutting edge. Who they are and what they buy is already established. Sex and commerce don’t meet.

In Chicago, nice married women with kids have sex with their husbands or they go bone dry. I don’t know how they do it. How do they resolve being hot and powerful one day and invisible the next? Maybe they get that feeling from their work. Maybe if I had stuck it out with art history… Durer was hot and I look great behind a desk. Who knows? How can I have a career when we move all the time? Every two years, I just get packed up and shipped to a new nanny and driver like a complacent pet.

I’m really not judging. Had we stayed in the US, I bet I would be just like my old girlfriends. I would make innuendos over macchiatos, have a kick ass work wardrobe, quietly resent my husband and kids, and call it a day.

But I’m not there; I’m here. As Alison likes to say, “In China, we have options!” Here, local men all use prostitutes (or have girlfriends that act like prostitutes). You trade money for affection and power unapologetically. And it’s not just a club for men, women get in on the action too. Look at Alison. She pays for it and she’s gorgeous! Successful and single but she can’t get a second look in this country. Asian guys don’t have the balls to approach her and Westerners are ruined.

Pot bellied white guys start acting like they’re the second coming of sexy Christ within a month here. Come on, I have a husband who looks like a number 2 pencil but somehow still doesn’t pay attention to me. Let’s ignore the fact that there are women lined up around the block to “go out” with him here, Mr. Paycheck, USD Xian Sheng. And let’s just quickly acknowledge that these women are thin and giggly and look like 12 year-old supermodels. You know it makes him feel like George fucking Clooney. Stop laughing, you try living with George Clooney for five minutes. Especially when China Clooney is a 5’8” balding engineer who looks at you like you’re in PowerPoint.

Anyway, enough bitching. I decided to go to Alison’s massage parlor. The one on Wukang, down the lane with the neon bamboo sign, Double Happiness. The one she is always winking and nudging about. Her standing appointment on Saturday night with number 58. Yes, that one! Let’s get another round, yeah?

As I walk down the lane, I start to feel sweaty. I wonder what Xiao Lu thinks of me. We must all look alike, us foreign ladies – tai tais –being driven to lunch in navy or black Buicks, taking Photography classes. He’s been our driver for years but we’ve never ventured here specifically. I wonder if Xiao Lu knows the reputation of this place. He must right? If he doesn’t know by now, I’m sure he’ll find out while he’s waiting. Anyway, I’m walking and feeling just a peep of guilt. I’ve spent weeks debating with myself about this happy ending — is this desperation or liberation? I took Gender Studies. What would Naomi Wolf think?

I’m sweating through my clothes from the nerves and of course the 1,000 per cent humidity. I’m flapping my silk blouse away from my new black Natori bra and I’m wondering, what does it matter? Did I even need to dress up? Who is this for? Wouldn’t I get the same results if I had skipped the perfume and stuck with yoga pants?

I pass a group of old ladies and kids. I have no idea what they’re saying but I know it’s about me. I understand laowei, of course, foreigner. The restaurant midway down the lane smells like that God awful stinky tofu and obviously, there goes my Chanel. I get to the massage parlor, they lead me in, there are stones and waterfalls and honestly, the place is beautiful. Very chic, very Zen. Almost like Japan. Any other time this would seem like the perfect retreat. But I'm nervous. All I can see and feel is every cell in my body panicking.

I have to talk myself down. Get over yourself! I think. I'm going to do it, I'm already resolved, I’m here. This is hap-pen-ning! I call on the spirit of Professor Pat, from Feminist Theory: “Drop your bag and take the tea for Christ’s sake. Enjoy it! You’re going to feel like a person again. You’re taking back your power!”

I’ve booked the special oil massage. It’s the most expensive so I’m confident it’s the right one. I’m relieved when the receptionists at the front seem to know what I’m talking about. It’s not on the menu, how apropos. They smile widely when they call down number 58 on their walkie-talkies. I'm sure the guy had a name, but you know, massage places never use anyone's name. It's all numbers. Maybe it’s because most foreigners can’t remember Chinese names. Fair enough, all these X’s and Y’s, no R’s. Or maybe these places have a high turn over with everyone always coming and going back to their hometowns. What do I know? I’m wondering about his name and laughing while I wait. What am I going to do? Yell out “Oh yes, Number 58” in the throes of passion? I’m not complaining. I went out with a guy for a month in college and he only called me baby. What’s the difference?

He comes down and I swear to God, there are sparkles in the air. Just like Alison said, he’s built like a giant. He’s a foot taller than the other masseuses and the mandarin collar pajamas that everyone is wearing barely fit him. He’s the kind of guy people would assume plays basketball.

My feet keep falling out of the bamboo slippers as I follow him up the steps and towards the rooms in the back. It’s so dark and there is no sound, just the Chinese fairy music they pump into the hallway.

I'm disoriented for sure but revved up because I know what's coming next. He takes me to the room and shows me where to put my clothes. He steps outside but leaves the door ajar. Maybe he’s watching me right? Maybe he’s checking out the goods too. So everything comes off and I’m going slowly because I think I have an audience. I want him to want me so I even fold my underwear. That’s classy right?

I'm naked, lying face down on the massage table, and pretty pleased with myself. I don’t feel desperate like I thought I might. I feel dynamic. I don’t need to wait for someone else to give me my power. Good for me, right? And thank you Alison!

He enters the room and although I can’t see, I can feel his presence. It’s like the air is warmer. There is no sound but the sounds between us. There is nothing between us but the thin sheet covering my body.

He asks if I have any problem areas, if I hurt anywhere. I say I’m here just to relax and I tell him I’m a friend of Alison’s. “Oh Alison!” he says and I’m sure that he knows what to do. I can relax. There are no more words necessary. Good thing too because his English was well… and you know my Chinese! After two months of lessons…

OK, you’re right, back to the story. Between the Nivea I put on before I came, the oil, and the humidity, to be honest, I’m not sure how he could get a grip. Anyway, he touches my legs, I'm getting hot and bothered. He touches my back, he touches my butt. His hands are everywhere — left, right, and nearing center if you know what I mean. The lighting is low and the candle is flickering from the A/C. I am all anticipation and ready.

He tells me to flip over and I'm thinking this is the big moment, this is it. I’m wondering if I should look him in the eyes or just let him get to work. And as I flip over, I feel something extra under my hip, like a little bundle. I pull it out and try to hold it up to the light to see what it is. The strangest thing, it looks like a white baggie with hair bands. I stretch it out and can make out three holes. I feel sick. I mean my stomach drops down below the floor. It’s a pair of disposable underwear. Oh God, I'm thinking to myself, am I not supposed to be naked?

Bartender, another round please. Less ice. Let’s make it through the rest in one piece.

Just as my brain is wrestling with the idea that those underwear were intended for me, I hear him. He’s working on my upper thighs and then suddenly, he clears his throat. His English has improved rapidly and he’s talking in full sentences. But he’s not saying what he’s supposed to say. He’s telling me how lucky I am. And let’s be clear, he's not checking out my ass and telling me how lucky I am, he's talking about my kids and telling me how lucky I am. This man has the gall to assume that I have kids. I mean, I do but to be called a mother — especially when you’re naked — is just so degrading.

He’s not looking at me like a patron, he’s looking at me like a matron. He’s asking about my children — how many I have, how old they are. And of all things  — I’m responding. Because I’m in shock and come on, I don’t want to be rude.

He’s telling me I look good for my age; not good for my age but good for my age. He’s talking to me like I’m a mom mom, not a MILF. He’s telling me I need to wear higher waisted pants to protect my lower back. I need to eat less salt. Every word is like a knife popping holes in my ego. I’m deflating. All of the power I had just a few minutes earlier is leaking out of the room, riding without a seatbelt (because who gives a fuck?), and is going to crawl under the covers and watch Bridget Jones.

There’s a difference between nervous and anxious. Nerves means something good could happen, anxiety means something bad is going to happen. Naked and feeling like an idiot, I’m anxious. The tingling in my body, the innocent nerves are all hard edges like a neon arrow telling me to get out now.

I don’t even pretend to look at the clock when I tell him that I'm running late. I just say that I have an appointment I forgot about. He looks confused. I'm sure he thinks I'm senile. He can think I’m a pervy grandma. I couldn’t care less at this point. I’m aiming for the safety of meeting you here and hiding my shame in a stiff Cosmo. Yes, that’s when I sent the message.

So when I’m all dressed, he’s waiting for me outside. He's checking his phone and he obviously has better places to be. He smiles at me. Is it mocking? I’m not sure. I feel like I’m in The Matrix, nothing is what it seems.

I’m flustered, more than a little embarrassed and angry, when wouldn’t you know it — my opportunity to turn things around walks right in the door. Bam! It's a couple of moms that I know from my kids’ school. I don't know them well, just their first names. I’ve seen them around, at fundraisers and Chinese New Year socials at the American Chamber. They’re from Virginia or maybe Vermont, I’m not sure. Like me, they've been around the block. I’m sure they’ve heard about this place. We exchange air kisses (they definitely are not from the West coast, there was no hugging). I tell them all about how great number 58 was and made sure to point him out. “The guy with the big hands,” I tell them. They get it, of course they get it, no one is naïve. We all laugh like sexy rebels. The heavier one (God, what is her name?) agrees to take a shot and requests number 58.

I trade those ridiculous slippers in for my boots, walk right past the wishing well at the gate, and past the old ladies now carrying their dogs out for a walk. (They’re dogs, for God’s sake, why are they wearing overalls?) I tell Xiao Lu, “Kuai yi dian,” which I’m sure he doesn’t understand but somehow he gets me here in record time. Just in time to order drinks before you showed up. Now how’s that for a story?



© M.E. Bergstrom, 2016
For more info on the author click here. This story was read by Barbara Kite