by Jesse Sessoms
I remember it clear as a bell: I was flipping through a Vogue Thai magazine when this backpacker walked in, said he’d seen the help-wanted sign in the window, and asked for a job. Let me tell you, it isn’t every day a foreign man applies to be masseuse, especially in my small town far from Bangkok.
“Where did you learn to massage?” I asked.
The man set his pack down. “I spent some years in India where I mastered the healing arts.”
“Mastered? . . . Why do you want to work here?” Not that I wasn’t proud of my shop, but it wasn’t exactly a high-end place where a professional would want to work.
I looked him up and down. It was peculiar indeed. He was clean, and he made you feel at ease, relaxed; there was a kindness about him, not soft, but kind. I’m a curious person, and maybe something inside me unconsciously gravitated towards him; I decided I’d give him a shot and see what happened; it probably wouldn’t hurt anything. Oddly, when I explained the money part, that he got a fifty percent cut of every massage plus tips, which were shared, his attention drifted off and he looked away out the window.
Then he told me he had a friend waiting outside who’d like a job as well, if that was alright, opened the door, said Hey B! and a shaven headed Asian man came in. His eyes were radiant, like in them was the happy buzz of a summertime honeybee alighting on a flower. When he smiled at me I felt sort of lighter, lifted up. I hired him too, not even having heard him speak a word.
I asked Wanwisa, who was our head masseuse and didn’t let anyone forget it, to watch and see how he did; being a nosy busy-body, she was happy to do it.
She told me all about J’s first massage (‘J’ was all he gave as his name), how when he did the prayer of respect which traditionally begins the Thai massage that he bowed until his forehead touched the bed, at the man’s feet. Right then we knew he was different.
J had some kind of hybrid technique nobody’d seen before. Don’t ask what techniques he hybridded. He pushed, pulled, prodded, rubbed, thumbed, elbowed and kneaded the man. He found the sweetest of sweet spots between joint and tendon, muscle and bone, opening locked nerve centers and revitalizing deadened power points, causing energies to realign, to flow; that man looked like a gentle breeze had swept through him, like his soul smiled at the dusting off of a long dusted over treasured memory.
“Do you have any aches?” J asked.
“Nothing particularly,” replied the man. And then: “Since you asked, there is an ache that I have. I’ve never told anyone about it, not my mother, my father, even my wife. . . .”
The words poured out of him. J listened. Here and there he spoke a few words, completely at ease while the man roamed from joyous to frustrated to mournful and back again, unloading his secretest fears and unspoken regrets.
When the massage ended tears streamed down his cheeks.
“Thank you, thank you so much. That was the best massage I have ever had in my entire life! It was so much more than a massage. It was – it was – I don’t know what it was but I feel different now; I feel . . . healed,” said the man.
It was like that for both J and B. All kinds of people came to get massages from them; men and women, the old and the young, the strong and the weak and when they went home their families marveled at how they’d changed. Those massages made them better somehow, like they were . . . transfigured, that’s the word. The families got curious and came in to get massages. After a month we had a two hour queue and customers were taking sick days from work to come in. Now I’m not saying what J and B did was wrong, that you shouldn’t do therapy, or whatever it was happened with them, in massages, just that it was different; it wasn’t at all what you’d expect in a massage shop. That was fine with me though: business was booming! Lena and Fone, two of the other masseuses, were happy with it, while Apsara didn’t take notice, life was a movie she was sleeping through. Wanwisa, now, she was jealous of J and B’s popularity even though she was making more money than ever before.
One day during lunch break, she was blowing up to speak with me and I tried to get her off to the privacy of the backroom but she had to get it out right there in our bursting-with-customers lobby, and in a loud voice she accused them of not sharing all their tips, said she had seen them pocket loads of cash many times, which she knew they must bring home every day after work. I know Wanwisa and didn’t believe a word of it. I told her that as politely as I could, but she got in a huff.
“I’m the number one masseuse in this shop!” she yelled at J. Then she slapped him. WHAP! Left a red splotch on his cheek. The chatter instantly ceased. J’s expression didn’t even change! The way he looked at her — with a compassion and understanding, as if he had seen straight into her heart, and having seen it, understood and forgiven all. Then he turned, not angrily or haughtily or cowardly, but gracefully, and offered his other cheek. The room went dead still as all our eyes zeroed in on the man who would do such a thing, with such nobility. Wanwisa didn’t have a clue what to make of it and stormed off, even more upset. After that I, all of us for that matter, looked at those two differently.
We hadn’t talked much at all, which was partly because of their being booked all day and into the night with massages, but also from a feeling you got like you didn’t want to intrude on them, their being so nice.
That night when we were closing up, I couldn’t help myself and I asked J where he and B were from.
“We’ve been backpacking around for a while. It’s been so long now it’s kind of hard to recall. . . . I used to live in Israel, but I ran into some trouble there and left; I’d travelled before that, but when I left there the second time that’s when I stayed on the road. I’d met B when I was in India, and he loves to travel, he’d already left his footprints in many lands, so we hooked up again, and we’ve seen a fair part of the world now.”
I was impressed; these were real-deal, genuine backpackers. I’ll admit, I was envious since I haven’t stepped a millimeter outside of Thailand in all my life, even with ASEAN having arrived already.
B snuck a peak around the curtain of the front window.
“The old mob of admirers — looks like it’s about time for us to move on again, J,” he said.
A crowd had stayed outside. They were pleading to receive the famed healing massage, refusing to go home, prepared to camp in front of our shop. They were having a good time, strangers were sitting together on reed mats, sharing food and swapping stories of J and B, and I almost felt like joining them.
Someone near the window said, “My sister’s friend’s friend said that after a guy got a massage from B, he used his birthdate and the exact time of his massage as lotto numbers and he won! Two hundred thousand baht!”
A murmur went through the crowd. The lucky lotto numbers proved J and B had special powers.
“You’ve got it all wrong. The guy used his mother’s birthdate, and it was five hundred thousand!” another interjected. A merrily protracted debate took place; if anyone else was going to win the lotto the details were crucial.
When J and B heard that talk about special powers they said a simple goodbye to me then slipped out the back. In the alley a dirt caked skin and bones homeless man slouched against the wall. J looked from one end of the alley to the other, no one else was there, saw me standing in the back doorway but didn’t seem to mind, then reached into his satchel and fumbled around.
“Ah, here it is,” he said after a moment and pulled out a beautiful pblaa pao, a salted, spit-fired fish, with the necessary herbs and dipping sauces, and a fresh loaf of bread, on a plate.
“Here you are, brother,” he said.
The half-dazed homeless man thought nothing of it. But I did. That was something. He pulled that fish out like he could do it all day, like he could feed the hungry masses. I knew they must’ve picked up a thing or two in all that backpacking they’d done.
That gave me a great idea: we should go into business together and open a grilled fish restaurant next door to the massage shop. It was a no risk, sure fire winner if there ever was one.
As I was dreaming of restaurants and riches I could see by the way the homeless man was pulling on his ear and frowning that a thought was working its way through his fuddled brain.
Finally it hit the surface and he said: “You wouldn’t have rice instead of bread?”
They laughed, and J looked over to B, who reached into his backpack, retrieved a wicker basket of steamed basmati rice and handed it to him.
Then the two dear friends vanished into the night.
The shop has quietened down again. When I’m killing time looking through my National Geographic Traveler magazine I often think of them, wondering what part of the world they might be in now, and what they’re doing.
Editor’s Note on New Staff:
New Staff is not Jesse Sessoms’ first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are:
- The Heart of the Land appeared in Eastlit August 2016.