by Sara Zolbrod
After the face-down part of this imaginary massage, my young client — let’s call him Robert Aaron Long — turns face-up. He takes my wrist and nudges it downwards before I quickly pull away. He asks, “Can I have a happy ending?”
During my 15 years as a licensed massage therapist, thankfully, I have never actually been asked that, though I’ve gotten the usual amount of comments hinting towards that sort of thing. The usual protocol would be to say, “That’s inappropriate and I will end our massage now.”
But today, after the shootings in Georgia, which especially resonated because I, too, am of Asian descent, the revenge fantasy or “prevention fantasy” arises first.
I imagine saying, “Hold that thought, sweetie, while I get some special lotion.”
In this fantasy, like a silent ninja, I pat down his backpack while his eyes are closed and I confiscate a 9mm handgun I find. I step out and fetch gleaming sharp, two-foot long gardening shears that just happen to be in the clinic’s storage closet. I come very close to Robert and say, “Why don’t you pull the sheet down, and hold that dick up for me, way down at the bottom, so I have good access…”
But then the restorative justice-inspired fantasy arises instead.
After the “happy ending” request, instead of getting a gun and shears, I quickly round up every other staff person. I rap loudly on a few treatment rooms with our special, pre-memorized knock.
My big crew and I — six of us, including two male therapists — file into the treatment room. I grab Robert’s jeans and shirt from the corner and plunk them on his chest. I say, “We’re going to turn our backs for a minute. You’re going to put your clothes on right away, and then we’re going to have a little chat.”
Once dressed, he sits in a chair. I tug two of my fellow therapists to sit on the massage table with me.
I say to Robert, who is a few feet away from me, “I think you are lonely. And I also see that you are a nice young man inside. We all have touch needs, but you can find sexuality without having to pay for it. I wish for all people to find ultimate sexual pleasure, and I encourage you to find your innate capacity for it from loving self-touch when you’re not in a relationship.”
I reach out to grip my fellow therapists’ hands tightly and continue.
“We trust and believe that you will find consensual sex and love with someone who desires you, instead of being under the influence of having to make money from you.”
The therapist beside me says to Robert: “You are a beautiful man and a beautiful soul. Can you imagine how enjoyable it will be to gently invite some young woman you meet at a park or a bar if she would give you her number, and sweetly build a friendship based on mutual respect? You’d learn her favorite music; she’d learn your favorite foods. You’d build rapport, learn to read her signs of reaching out to you, and express your attraction to her in a moment of warmth after laughing together.
“You can have all this. You are loveable. A few of us have given you massages — non-sexual, of course — and we see you. We see your humanity.”
The therapist on the other side of me adds, “Maybe you have had bad experiences with women. You’re Christian, right? So am I. Maybe our Bible or church teachings have made you feel that desire is sinful. But desire is beautiful, and a natural part of being human.”
I speak again. “We are massage therapists because we want people to feel better in their bodies, and in their souls. We don’t want to be objectified. We need you to keep your sexuality in check in this setting.”
My colleague, Mark, pitches in: “But in your social life, cultivate patience, be respectful and caring; be responsive and wait for others’ cues. And sex will feel amazingly fulfilling when it is mutual.
“You don’t need to pretend you’re less shy, or more this, or more that. Just express your genuine interest in people and let someone get to know the real you, as you get to know them at a pace that feels good to both of you.”
Robert puts his face in his hands and we hear strange, muffled crying sounds. I start weeping quietly, too. I say gently to Robert, “I think we all want to move on with our day soon. Do you mind if we hold hands first?”
He nods. He stays seated; I take one of his hands — though I can’t bring myself to hold it firmly — and my colleague’s hand, and we all make a raggedy circle in the small massage room. Robert’s head is hung down. I tell him, “I won’t give you massages anymore, but you are welcome to get non-sexual professional massages from some of us.”
The two male therapists and one female one say, “You can still get massages from me.”
I continue to Robert, who still looks straight down, “We envision you blossoming into a life of friendships and beautiful, mutual sexual relationships. We don’t judge you and we have nothing but love in our hearts for you.”
I say, “Mark, would you mind staying with me, but everybody else, thank you, we got it from here.”
After the others leave, Mark says to Robert, “We would be happy to refer you to good counseling and other community resources. Is there anything else we should talk about or that we can do for you?” Robert moves his head “no.”
I ask, “Could we shake hands?” He offers a limp hand. This time I’m able to connect more firmly, allowing my energy to reach him. I feel warmth in our palms, in our longer- than-normal handshake. He glances into my eyes for a moment, and we see each other.
And we go on with our day. Just trying to live with some love and some peace and shared humanity.
Sara Miura Zolbrod understands that violence and mental health problems and the criminalization of sex work are complex and structural and cannot be solved in an hour or a day. She has no expertise in counseling or restorative justice. Her massage license is through the Oregon State Board of Massage Therapists, and she is a freelance editor and writer.
This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women.