I know he’s going to be a talker before I even take off my clothes.
Ten minutes earlier, Kay, the massage parlour receptionist strode into the dressing room and made a beeline for me, flicking bills rapid-fire, as she counted out my share. “Evangeline. Room 2 for an hour.”
I sit up from the couch and take three fifties from her. Rain splatters against the industrial tin roof and I reach for my bottle of mouthwash. I’m two hours away from the end of a double, a 9 am – midnight shift. Nobody comes in this late for an hour unless they want more than a hand job. The stragglers are often drunk or lonely, wanting an exhaustive level of validation. I feel the day’s weight on me, like the smell of spun sugar perfume and cigarettes that works its way into my hair after each shift. Just let me jerk you off and get the hell out of my face.
We’re what the city calls a licensed Body Rub Parlour, meaning clients pay us to give them a nude massage, which is legal. Clients, however, understand that some level of mutual nudity, body-to-body contact and a hand job is part of the deal, and those things are more of a grey area. The laws are purposely vague. Some attendants offer other sexual services on the down low, but this is discouraged by management, because word gets around and nobody wants a bunch of gleeful bylaw enforcement officers to come around late at night.
We are, ultimately, a rub’n’tug with upscale branding. Clients seek us out for a variety of needs; some book fetish sessions, or threesomes. Some are just horny in the middle of a workday for no particular reason. Some want to kiss and talk and feel like someone’s real boyfriend, which is what I suspect this guy’s deal is. When I enter the room, the client is, as I suspected, not on the massage table, but sitting on the low-slung leather couch, a towel around his waist. The lights burn low and red, but I can navigate these rooms blindfolded. Pivoting on my stilettos, I fold myself down and sit beside him.
“I’m Joe,” he says. Fifty percent of massage parlour clients are named Joe. This particular Joe is thickset, pale and looks to be nearing fifty, so pretty much like every other Joe I’ve ever seen in this place. His moustache twitches, tan and full.
“Okay Joe.” I lean closer so he can feel my body heat, the lace of my corset, the tops of my breasts not quite touching him, but close. He reaches out to touch my cheek. I let him. “Where are you from?” he asks breathlessly.
Clients are obsessed with wanting to know where you are from. Most massage parlour attendants I’ve worked with live here in Toronto and have grown up in or near the city, but there’s a pervasive belief that foreign-born women make up the bulk of sex workers. Many clients also fetishize certain races and ethnicities. They call and ask, “do you have any Asians working today?” like they’re inquiring about a selection of pastries. Once a client called and insisted he needed a massage from an “Irish girl,” so Winter, a petite, freckled blonde, gave him a session using a fake Irish accent the whole time.
“Aye lad, you’re a right handsome dinger,” she mimicked for us afterwards, rolling her hips as we laughed ourselves into hysteria.
I usually tell men I’m Swedish, which is what I know they expect for someone with my features: Tall, blonde, fair-skinned. I know this is part of the narrative they’re imagining for themselves, so I let them have it. Adjusting my identity to reflect men’s desires is the most central part of my job. But tonight I feel mean.
“Sudbury,” I lie, and watch his face fall. I know he didn’t want to believe I came from a mining town in Northern Ontario, he wanted something more evocative. Sometimes it feels good to crush someone’s dream, just a little.
I was adopted at birth, which means the question “where are you from?” is one I don’t have a good answer for anyway. When people ask this, they usually mean, “what non-North-American country does your family hail from originally?” It’s the most basic of questions, but it always feels like a test I’m about to get wrong. Do I reference the heritage of the only family I’ve ever known? We’re fair-skinned, so physically I can pass for a biological relative, a luxury some adopted children don’t have. But this feels that like a lie. It feels like putting on a shirt that just isn’t right, that pulls at the chest or bunches at the armpits, coarse weave chafing at your skin. I think about the rare occasions when I was small and my mother’s far-flung family has made it together for holiday dinners, long tables full of lively, shrieking relatives that overwhelmed me, speaking in decibels my own voice could never recreate. I felt like it was my job to figuratively speak these people’s language, to be one of them, but each time I failed, like a miscast theatre student.
“She’s a loner,” I heard my mom describe me over the phone once, yellowed telephone cord twisting between her fingers as she leaned against the kitchen counter. She wasn’t wrong.
Should I reference what little I know of my biological family’s history? It feels equally deceitful, laying claim to the origin stories of people I’ve never lived with, narratives that have never shaped my life. I’ve had some contact with my biological father, and delighted in stories from his side of the family about his Lebanese grandparents putting down roots in the Canadian prairies. But there’s something clandestine about hearing these stories, something that keeps me from embracing them fully. After all, he is the only person on that side of the family who even knows of my existence. “Once I figure out how to tell my kids about you, you can come down and visit,” he says. “We’ll hang out.” He never did.
I feel an agonizing collision of loyalties for even having these conflicts about where I’m truly from. Parent is a verb, I tell people who ask if I’ve ever met my “real” parents. My real parents are the ones who raised me, and I believe this. My parents have given me food and shelter, loved me the best way they know how. I know adoption wasn’t their first choice, but little in their actions as parents has ever betrayed this. Still, there lurks this undeniable feeling that they can’t fully know me, nor I them. At the edges of our conversations laps some kind of longing I can’t even name.
Where are you from?
I know, also, that this question is an over simplification of things, that having an answer wouldn’t really make up for a lifetime of fractured identity. Instead I live in limbo.
In The Mistress’s Daughter, A.M. Homes says, “adoptees don’t really have rights. Their lives are about supporting the secrets, the needs and desires of others.” When I read that as a teenager, it struck me like lightning: Sharp, hot, incapacitating. As an adult, I feel somewhat differently. After all, aren’t we all the product of someone’s needs? But being adopted is, I’ve always felt, about adapting to other people’s narratives. So for the most part, I get good at it.
In a world of dim hallways and cash by the hour, having a fluid identity was an asset. When I first started working in massage parlours at 21, this seemed like a perk. I could be anyone I wanted to behind closed doors. Like some kind of X-rated shapeshifter, I made my way through sessions, in turn being a peppy student, an icy ingénue, a stand-in for someone’s long lost wife. It felt like I was taking something I had grappled with my whole life and capitalizing on it. Sometimes clients would come in and whisper special requests to the receptionist, who would then brief us in the dressing room. They would throw open the door and take in our wreckage with disdain: Takeout cartons, hairspray cans, crumbling blush compacts in candy pink.
“Ladies,” they would say to the half a dozen lingerie-clad girls languishing on couches, “is anyone comfortable hogtying someone in the shower and doing a foot fetish session? Go introduce yourself to the client in room five.”
After a beat of silence, the tapping of a clipboard against a thigh. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, this guy’s waiting and I have two more clients in the lobby. You’re here to make money, aren’t you?”
“Hell no girl,” someone would inevitably say. “I can not do that shit.”
But I could. I could be anyone.
That seemed like ages ago. At 25, I was on my fifth spa, one nestled into an industrial wasteland where fuel tankers rattled the windows as they sped by and the neon “massage” signs winked and flashed on every corner. Shifts passed in long stretches of dead time punctuated with a blur of grabby hands and mouths that tasted like cigarettes. Men irritated me now, men like Joe who wanted so much more than just the physical from me, when I had nothing left to give. I wanted out, but had nowhere to go. Being asked where I was from started to wear on me too.
It’s so stupid,” I said to Gloria while we took our breaks out back, jackets thrown over lingerie as we huddled on the hood of her Honda. “Why do they even fucking ask? It’s not like I’m going to give a different session based on whether I’m from Sweden or anywhere else.”
Gloria shook her curtain of brunette hair, nose ring glinting under the streetlamp’s weak glow. It was dark out, but early enough to feel safe back there. The auto shop adjacent was still open, its glass doors rolled up as the mechanics chatted in Spanish with each other, their eyes shifting periodically to the crucifix tattoo on Gloria’s thigh. Once they closed up we would go back inside and bolt the door. Gloria shrugged and offered me the last of her fries. She didn’t understand why I was upset.
Truthfully, not having a “real” answer about my background seemed like a frivolous thing to be concerned about, amidst the jokes about white people being obsessed with genealogy and DIY swab kits like 23andme. It felt especially inconsequential compared to the extremely real prejudice some of my colleagues faced, either because they were a certain race, or because they weren’t. And yet, I got so angry when anyone asked. Angry in a way that frightened me. Perhaps because they wanted something from me, and lying wasn’t even a choice. I simply didn’t have the answer to give.
I was eight the first time I realized my identity could have a role in someone else’s needs. As a kid I loved to play dress-up. I loved the look and feel of different textiles, the heavy grit of sequins, billowy silk that felt like cool hands on my skin when I moved. The way a single smear of blue eyeshadow seemed to change my face completely. Each outfit seemed like a portal to another universe, a promise of someone I might be one day. On a rainy suburban Saturday, I forced my mother to appreciate each costume as she scrubbed the bathroom, wearing a plaid button-up and rubber gloves up to her elbows. Her no-nonsense pixie cut was brushed off her forehead. I was playing a “fancy lady,” my favourite thing. I imagined a woman hurrying hurrying through the streets of downtown on her way to a glamorous hotel dinner, maybe even taking a cab, which seemed the height of luxury to me. With each thrift store cocktail dress I rolled and pinned in place, I paraded down the hallway with my hands on my hips, tossing my hair and posing expectantly.
But something was wrong. When my mother paused her cleaning to glance in my direction, it wasn’t with the admiration I had hoped for. She cast her eyes on each outfit with disappointment. Disgust, even. She was sad, I thought, and I had done something to make her that way. Even as a kid I was extremely sensitive to other people’s feelings. I could read energy and body language in a way that would become extremely useful as an adult, once I learned how to be strategic about it. But right then, all I felt was an overwhelming sense of having made a mistake. I had to fix things and I knew how. Digging through my costume trunk, I pulled on a plaid shirt like hers and mashed a straw cowgirl hat onto my head. I thought of my mother’s dust-caked photo albums, images of her lively family on their farm up North, Wrangler jeans, rutted side roads and bales of hay that dwarfed even my Grandfather, who was over six feet tall. I wiped a slash of pink lipstick off my face. Racing up the basement stairs, I burst into her line of sight and launched into an exuberant hoedown. It felt farcical, even to eight-year-old me, but it did the trick. At last her face lit up, and she grinned from where she knelt at the bathtub. “You’re just a country girl at heart, aren’t you?”
The question seemed to hang in the air like something physical, daring me to dislodge it from its precarious perch. Was that what I was? “Yes,” I reassured her. “Yes I am.”
I remembered then, that I had a job and I had almost messed it up. Identity was not a state to indulge in. It was a thing that was malleable, and there was both power and responsibility to how I shaped it in my hands.
Joe just wants to sit with me on the couch and touch my face and breasts and kiss me a little, occasionally pressing me into the back of the couch until I feel its cold leather against my spine. I feel bad that I didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear, but he gets over it pretty fast. He cheerfully tells me about a band that he plays in, even though he reminds me more of a middle-aged history professor. He tells me a million tepid jokes. He doesn’t even want me to touch him below the waist until we’re almost at time, which makes for a stressful last two minutes. I’m exhausted, but Joe needs me to be an enraptured groupie, curious and attentive, so I am. In the end, I will chalk him up to another in a long line of late-night clients, shuttling him out the door as efficiently as possible so I can dump my towels and get a head start mopping the floors. Before we clock out, the entire place gets cleaned. The girls on closing shift divide up tasks: Hosing down showers, wiping massage tables, taking out the trash and finishing laundry for the morning shift. Kay will fine you twenty bucks if she sees you missed an oil stain or left streaks on the mirrors. Gasoline shimmers in the parking lot puddles as I wait for my cab. When its headlights finally bloom into view, I step in and the driver pulls past the shuttered warehouse doors.
“Busy night?” He asks. We both work in cash jobs, so it’s common for cab drivers to commiserate with us.
“It was okay. How about you?”
“Ah slow,” he says, waving his hand. A string of rosary beads swings from the rearview mirror as he pulls onto the expressway. In the cab’s darkness, I count the day’s earnings, thumbing crumpled bills in my lap. After shift fees, Joe and a few other clients during the day equaled just over $200, including tips. On a good day in massage you could make $1,000, which I had in the past. More frequently you didn’t, but the possibility kept you coming back, like gambling. It made you think what you needed was just within reach and maybe tomorrow you’d find it. On slow days, attendants become obsessed with trying to plot algorithms, trying to identify why a quiet shift was quiet, or why we were passed up so much. Was there a football game on? Was it too close to the end of the month? Should we have worn the leopard-print chemise, not the black one?
Joe left happy, but I still ask myself these questions as I tuck the cash into my wallet. Some days there’s really no answer. In massage, no matter who you are, you’ll never please everyone. Some days that answer has to be enough.
Lana Hall is a freelance writer and former news reporter based in Toronto, Canada. She has a journalism degree from Ryerson University.