Philadelphia. Circa 1989. Mid-January. Massive mounds of filthy, encrusted snow lined the slick streets. The air was numbingly cold. Valerie wished she had worn an extra pair of socks. Her feet were starting to feel the burn of the cold by now. Heading into the frigid wind, she pushed her thick scarf up over her mouth and nose, with an awkward mittened hand. Her eyes watered, and her nose was starting to run. Miserable. It was miserable. The depths of an East coast winter. The aftermath of the holidays. Dead and cold. Bitter and cruel. Monotone and lifeless.
Valerie had moved there 2 years earlier to take a job at a prestigious university library. It was really her first professional job, and she loved it. However, the pay was meager, since she was entry level, and there wasn’t much room for advancement in the near future. Needless to say, between her rent, bills and basics, she was always strapped for cash. In addition, she had a looming college loan to pay off, and it was already starting to accrue interest. Every Sunday she would scour the paper, looking for odd jobs to supplement her income. Occasionally, she would find a one-day gig cleaning someone’s closet, or doing housework. She even had a job painting apartments on weekends for a couple of months with an artist from Croatia (Yugoslavia). But these were all temporary, and inevitably she ended up back at square one over and over again.
This Sunday, she was on her way to interview for a job at a day spa. The ad said that they would train the right person to do massage. She thought this sounded perfect, since the hours were flexible and there were cash tips to be made as well. When she had called, the woman had sounded eager to meet her, and they had set up the interview for the same afternoon. She headed there with mixed feelings of curiosity, hope and a bit of trepidation. She had been walking for 15 minutes, which felt like an eternity in the frigid air. Finally, she could see the building ahead. It was located above a laundry mat, just like the woman had told her. She could see the delapidated building, with its grimy fluorescent lit laundry-mat glowing at street level. Dim lights were flickered in the upper windows.
As she crossed the street towards the address, she saw the small entryway. As the heavy door swiftly slammed with a vacuum seal, she welcomed the blast of hot air surrounding her. She pressed the ancient metal buzzer that said “Day Spa”. There was a static noise, and a woman’s garbled voice told her to come upstairs. The latch released, and she pushed open the second door to enter into the dingy hallway.
She suddenly felt broiling hot. Taking off her mittens and scarf, she stuffed them into her backpack, before heading up the rickety wooden stairway. A musty smell permeated the hall, along with a hint of Lisol. Once she reached the landing, with it’s faded and torn wallpapered hall, she saw a faded red door at the end of the hall that just said “spa” in small uneven vinyl blue letters. As she walked over, the door opened. A very young woman, maybe 18, looked her up and down. “Valerie?, You are here for job?”, she asked with a heavy eastern European accent. Valerie told her yes, and that she had an interview with Marie. The girl lead her into the waiting area, which was lit only by one tiny cheap looking table lamp. Next to the lamp was a lopsided miniature Christmas tree with strands of multi-color lights sloppily wrapped around it. There were a few holiday greeting cards under the tree and one awkwardly stuck between the branches. The young woman told Valerie her name was Irene, and that she would need to wait for the boss, Marie.
Valerie followed her through the waiting area, down a dreary hall, into a fluorescently lit laundry room, where there were a couple of other girls. One sat on the dryer, smoking a cigarette, and the other sat on a stool folding towels. They both looked tired, barely acknowledging her as she walked in. The one with the cigarette, glanced up long enough to give Valerie a dirty look, and proceeded to blow smoke in her direction with a hard stare. Irene, opened a mini-fridge in the corner and took out a can of Tab. She passed it to Valerie, and told her to sit down and wait until Marie came out. Valerie sat down, sipping her soda. She took her scarf from her backpack, and folded it slowly, wrapping her mittens inside of it. Mostly because she wanted to seem busy, and avoid eye contact with the other girls. The air was tense. The only sound was the dryer, and a small radio playing top 40 hits from the 80’s.
Finally, she heard a door open down the hall and footsteps, along with the sound of a man and woman talking and laughing. Then the front door opened and shut. She heard the sound of heavy heels on the wood floor, and looked up to see a stocky blonde woman, wearing a cowboy hat. Her shirt was unbuttoned to reveal an ample cleavage sprinkled with freckles. It was tucked into a pair of tightly belted high-waisted jeans. Everything was very snug, accentuating her curvaceous figure. She looked unnaturally tan, and this was set off by her frosted pink lipstick, and heavily lined sparkling blue eyes peering out from under the brim of the hat. Valerie got up and the woman laughed, and said, “Hi, I’m Marie, sorry you had to wait, but you know how it goes.” She smiled and flashed a smile revealing a diamond imbedded front tooth. Valerie reached into her backpack, and pulled out an envelope, handing it to Marie. “This is my resume.” She told her. Marie laughed loudly. “Honey, I don’t need that! Follow me, and lemme tell you about the job.”
Valerie followed her through the waiting area, down another darkened hallway. Marie’s clunky platform wooden clogs lead the way along the floorboards. She opened a door to the left and let Valerie into a windowless room, which was all white. There was a massage table in the middle, and a bamboo screen on the side. On another side table stood a container of Clubman talc, and a large bottle of generic baby oil. Marie hoisted herself up onto the massage table, letting her clogs fall loudly to the floor. She looked at Valerie seriously, “Okay honey, listen. This is a massage parlor. You gotta give a good massage. I could interview you, but what I need to know is can you give a decent massage. So, basically, what I’m saying, is, you gotta give me a massage, and then I’ll know if you can do the job. After you finish, I’ll give you one.”
Valerie felt like leaving, but it was so cold out, and what could it hurt to give this lady a massage anyhow. She quickly justified the odd interview request, deciding that it might be worth it if she could make some money here. Anyhow, Marie was already taking her shirt off. Then, she took off her hat, stuffing the shirt inside of it, and tossed to the far corner of the room. Next, she stood for a moment, swiftly unfastened the tooled leather belt, and peeled off the jeans, throwing them over the bamboo screen. She kept the high-cut shiny red panties and giant matching brassiere on. Valerie let out a barely audible sigh of relief. Marie climbed onto the table, flipping onto her stomach, saying, “okay sweetheart, go ahead, gimme all you got.” Valerie, pushed up her sweater sleeves, and reached for the baby oil. She warmed it between her hands and took a deep breath. She massaged Marie’s thick freckled shoulders and neck, being careful to move the bleached blonde hair out of the way. Beneath the hair was a large faded tattoo of a rabbit on rollerskates, with the name “Lou” beneath it. Valerie kneaded deeply and slowly over the dense upper back, being sure to take her time. Marie moaned, and said “Oh, yeah, baby. That’s what I’m talkin’ bout. Mmm hmmm, you know what? You’re a natural. I can tell. Can you just massage my legs a bit and then we can switch.”
Valerie, massaged her thighs, with long sweeping strokes, steering clear of the panty line area. Meanwhile, she asked Marie, “so, um, how does it work in here? I mean, what kind of massage do you offer clients. Do I have to learn Swedish, or other types? How do they pay?” Marie sighed. “Oh yeah, I practically forgot about the fact that you’re here about the job, I was gettin’ so relaxed up in here. Well, basically it’s up to you how much money you gonna make, you know.” Valerie asked what she meant. Marie laughed. “You know, some guys they like you to dress up like a nurse, or whatever, you know. You can say yes, or no. But, if you really wanna make the big money, you know what I mean, um, yeah you can do what you want. You know. I can’t tell you, ‘cause it’s really up to you, but you know what I’m sayin’.”
Marie let out a heavy smoker’s cough, saying, “You can stop now, it’s my turn, lemme show you how its’ done.” Valerie quickly answered, “no, thanks, it’s okay, I got it. I have to get going.” Marie smiled, “oh, yeah, well, baby, it’s your loss. Anyhow, if you want the job, you got it. And, did I mention it’s all cash? Yeah, honey, in this business you can walk out of here after every shift with a fat wallet if you play your cards right. You know what I mean. Alls you gotta pay out is a house fee flat, or do a 50/50 cut, the choice is yours. Most girls pay the house flat fee. You keep the rest. Tips are really up to how happy you make the client. You know what I mean.“ Winking a heavily lashed eye, she laughed boisterously, as she fluffed out her big blonde hair. Valerie, laughed too, and told her that she would think it over. Marie, got back into her outfit, adjusting the cowboy hat on her head. She climbed into her clogs and opened the door into the hall, allowing Valerie to exit first. As she walked into the hallway, the young girl who had answered the door, Irene, passed by, headed towards another massage room, followed by a client, a 60 something man, with a large protruding stomach and thinning hair. He had sunglasses on, which she found odd, considering how dark it was in this place. As they got to the waiting area, Marie excitedly whispered to her, “that guy there, well, you know who that is, right? He spends a shitload of cash up in here. He’s one of our top clients. We got plenty, honey. Politicians, cops, traders, rockstars, all kinds of famous rich guys. I’m telling you, kid, you can do real good in here. Might not look like much, but what you see ain’t always what is seems, you know. You think it over, and call me. You won’t regret it. I can guarantee it.”
Valerie thanked her, as she pulled on her down coat, and wrapping the scarf around her head. She grabbed the mittens out of the backpack, making sure she was well protected before heading down the hallway towards the stairs. She could see it was getting dark out already as she reached the foyer of the building. Exiting to the right, the frigid wind pelted her cheeks with icy rain. It was sleeting again. She stopped at a corner deli to get a coffee for her walk home. Her mind raced. She needed money and Marie had been convincing, but the girls there sure didn’t look like they were doing very well. She sipped her coffee as she walked as fast as possible along the slick sidewalks. Finally, she saw her street. The light shining from her brownstone entry had never looked more welcoming.
Opening up the door to her apartment, she smiled and looked around. She didn’t have much, but it was cozy and homey. She felt grateful as she flopped down on her second hand sofa. Her tabby cat, Pierre, came over and purred against her leg. She noticed the blinking light on the answering machine, and picked up her home phone to listen to the messages. One from her mother, the usual Sunday check in, and one from her boyfriend Nick. She smiled as she listened to his message. He said he wanted to come over later, and he would love to treat her to a relaxing massage.