June 06, 2016
Ho Chi Minh City, 2000. A US Marine in plain clothes sat in the waiting area. I’d done enough overseas trips as a White House advanceperson to guess he was a Marine Security Guard detailed for this presidential visit, the first since the war ended. He exuded youth and boundless strength, with the kind of pectorals earned on a family farm. He looked at me sheepishly. Did he feel caught? I wanted to laugh with him: this wasn’t some neon-lit storefront we were patronizing. This was the hotel spa—where the clerk looked sharp, posh even, his polo shirt buttoned to his neck, like everyone else in this Vietnamese five-star hotel, all of them making wartime seem forgotten. The same hotel where the leader of the free world would stay just as our advance teams had for days. If there was anything sordid about this place we wouldn’t be here.
A woman in a denim mini-skirt and pumps stepped out from a side room. She was older than me, though not old, and she smiled as she beckoned. I was confused, but I followed her into the dim room with two massage tables. She wore full makeup with red lipstick, her long hair shiny as polished stone. During my Hong Kong layover, the masseuse at the airport hotel spa wore scrubs, and the session felt like physical therapy. This felt like a date. She strained her tight blouse as she pulled the partition curtain closed then told me to undress. When she left the room, she snapped closed the door curtain behind her.
I left on my bra and panties and lay face down on the table, covering myself with the towel. Light and noise slipped in from the hallway and I thought it strange that so little separated half-naked me from the strangers outside. But by now, I considered myself a massage vet. I’d seen some things. The previous year I had visited a hotel spa in Ankara, Turkey. The masseur, dark-haired, and with an air of mastery, rubbed my back then told me to roll over. I obeyed. He massaged my breasts. I was 25 years old and slipped into my own version of M. Butterfly, the orientalist dream that this is how it must be here despite Turkey being a Muslim country where many women wear hajib. He kept rubbing and I kept silent, eyes closed. Later, a male colleague asked how my massage went. He had me turn over, I said. All of my colleagues gasped. Some giggled. You paid for that? Yes, I said. Sounds like he should have paid you.
The woman returned. She began to massage, her small hands lightly kneading my shoulders and I hoped she was only warming up: I wanted to feel her hands grip my muscles and call up fresh blood and pleasure. How is that? She whispered. What? How is that? I flustered inside. No masseuse had ever spoken to me that way. She leaned down, her breasts on my back as she asked again how is that? This was not good.
This is fine, I said. She asked me where I was from. She talked. She kept talking. And all I could think was no, I paid for your touch, not your talk, not the connection that can lead to more, whether the more is sex, or sex is the means to more for your life, for my life, for whatever we try to get from each other. Especially when one of us has more power, perceived or real, to take us from here to there and do it fast.
The masseuse finished the normal Swedish routine. Then, to my surprise, she walked on my back. Was I on the floor? I don’t remember. Did she take off her heels? Honestly, I don’t know. All I remember is pain. She was walking on me and it hurt so badly. She was not big, not at all, but as her weight poured through the balls of her feet into my back I saw myself calling for one of the detailed military doctors upstairs, crawling past the Marine to get to him and afraid of what would happen if a broken rib punctured my lung: would I expire in a Saigon hospital? Would I be stuck like so many ghosts we knew would be here waiting, and the pain—she had me caught, she had me fully under her feet and I could barely breathe and then it was over. All over. Except the bruising. Beneath my suit blouse, the blood wound was red, blue, and black, with ridged edges that gave it the shape of a country on a map.