Two years ago, I found myself locked in a shop with a tiny masseuse, two junkies and two hours until my brothers’ wedding. This was not on the schedule.
I arrive in the city way ahead of my hair appointment and have time to kill. Spotting a little massage place, I figure I’ll crank up the self-love dial and pop in.
There’s only one masseuse on duty. I prepay and she locks the front door before leading me to the therapy room. Soon enough I’m off in la-la land, the scent of lavender oil and her rhythmic touch lulling me into a stupor.
The bell rings. She excuses herself. A gravelly voice says, "This isn’t one of those sex places, is it? My wife wants a massage." Cringe. A minute passes and she’s back, but her movements are rigid. I can feel the stress flowing out of her and can hear it in her breathing. I ask her if she’s okay. "It’s just… difficult. I hate that," she says.
We finish up and she heads back to the front. I’m one arm in my bra when I hear her shriek, "Give it back!" All of my gooey relaxation evaporates. As I come out of the room I can see her, handbag open in her hands, shaking and looking accusingly at someone I can’t yet see.
As I reach the end of the hall I’m confronted by the owner of that gravelly voice and a woman -- they’re all weathered and wild eyed sporting unwashed hair and track marks. I’m wondering why they’re still here if they’ve robbed her, wondering if they have a weapon.
The woman lurches toward me and I step back into the wall. She tears up and down the hall trying to unlock doors, pulling displays onto the floor: ‘This b—ch has locked us in!’ she yells to her husband.
Then it clicks. The therapist had locked the door when I went to get the massage. She must have done the same after admitting them.
I consider my options. The five-foot-nothing therapist is hysterical and doing herself no favours. Could I grab her and run to a therapy room? Do they lock from the inside?
I try to calm the tension -- I’m as locked in as they are. Somehow I get the masseuse to shut up. She keeps insisting they return her money. I tell her to take a breath and sit down. She does. I ask them to please do the same. They do. Then I do. And then we’re all sitting there, looking at each other.
It’s quiet. I breathe in deeply and try to talk slowly, pacing myself, trying to feign calmness. I was a lot of things in that moment -- calm wasn’t one of them.
I talk about myself. I tell them I had been a drug addict at 17 and stole my way through it. The man looks at me suspiciously from behind a fresh-looking black eye. I feel like he’s searching me to find a lie. As if I, all clean and chipper, couldn’t possibly understand, let alone have been an addict myself.
I tell them about how scared I was watching my best friend overdose and how it made me realise what I was doing to myself -– but that it didn’t make me stop. There’s just something about the glamour of watching someone almost die in a mall garden that just reels a girl back in, I guess.
I tell them how I dropped out of school twice and went to rehab. I had pinned my hopes on checking out of life and getting well but I actually ran away two days later, intent that I could do it on my own.
I stayed clean for two weeks, I explain to them. But then, my boyfriend had his birthday and I figured that just once wouldn’t hurt. I had self-control now, right? After taking a hit that night, I felt like I had climbed out of my body. I watched myself, formerly an intelligent and interesting person, become a gibbering, stoned wreck. I went home and scrubbed at myself in the shower, wishing the dope out of my system and longing to be more, or less, or anyone else but me.
The next day I cut myself off from everyone that I had been around for the past three years. Ten years after that decision, I saw one of my BFFs from that time. He looked right through me -- he was too smashed to even know who I was.
As I spoke, the woman quietly regarded me. "I really hope things get better for you," I say. Her eyes go soft and watery, her face crumples up as she starts to cry.
She keeps crying and chokes out their story. Their children have been taken from them by the state. They are waiting for government-supported drug rehabilitation but keep getting pushed back. They are good people, she says, but they screwed up and she doesn’t know how to be anyone but a junkie anymore.
Deep breath. I need to not cry, although my heart was breaking for everyone in that room.
I tell them it’s my brother’s wedding day. That I need to get going. That if they could please just give back the money we can all go our separate way like this never happened. The masseuse isn’t able to call the police. She doesn't speak much English and she’s hardly able to breathe. I promise that I will stay with her if they give her back the cash.
The masseuse hands me the key and I let them out. Once on the street, I wish them luck. And then the man hugs me. He thanks me. And I feel like I could break into a million pieces.
I head back inside and fix the product displays. The masseuse watches me, hugging her knees. She starts to cry and I give her a huge bear hug that goes forever. My heart drops even further as she haltingly explains that she’s alone and working to send money to her family in China. She came here to resolve their poverty but spends most days fending off men looking for more than a massage. She cries again. I find her tea set and make her a cup. I tell her to close shop for the afternoon and I leave.
Running late for my hair appointment, I hit the street. Watching my feet carry me away, I thought how lucky I was to be a passing visitor in those lives. I saw in this couple how my life could have gone, a reminder of how powerless I was. I’ve never felt so privileged or so guilty. And so very fortunate.