By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Excerpted from Los Angeles Noir, edited by Denise Hamilton and forthcoming from Akashic Press. See Readings for events associated with this book.
The Korean women, lined up in black bras and underpants, pushed and pulled the flesh on their individual tables as if they were kneading dough.
Ann watched for a moment and then dipped down into a steaming bath a few yards away. She was naked and unadorned, aside from a locker key dangling from a bright-orange plastic bracelet around her wrist. She didn’t know why she even bothered securing the locker. There wasn’t much worth taking. Her beat-up jeans, size four, extra skinny, extra tall, and a simple T-shirt. A ratty bra with a rusty clasp and twisted underwire and matching panties. A fake leather hobo-style purse, bought at a discount store on Hollywood Boulevard, a couple of miles from her apartment. Platform shoes that stank of too much wear. She didn’t have a car right now, so she traveled with a monthly bus pass. In her wallet was a fresh twenty — for the tip her co-worker Marie told her to bring — and a couple of ones.
The spa had been expensive — a hundred dollars and then the twenty-dollar tip — but Marie told Ann that she needed to treat herself when she was feeling down. “Who needs antidepressants?” she had said. “Just get a salt scrub in Koreatown.”
Ann lifted her face from the hot water and brushed away wet hair plastered on her forehead. She tried not to stare at the masseuses working in the open spa, but it was hard not to. Marie had forewarned her about their lack of clothing. “Only makes sense, you know? It’s the same for the masseurs in the men’s section. They scrub off your dead skin and then rinse you off. Everyone gets wet. If they’re going to get soaked, they might as well wear bathing suits.”
But these weren’t swimsuits — at least it didn’t look that way from the Jacuzzi.
About every ten minutes, a masseuse would leave her station and call out an assigned number into the open spa. Ann’s masseuse was Number 19, which was written and circled on the envelope she had received, along with two square pink washcloth mitts. The texture of the cloth was rough, like sandpaper. “You’ll feel like you’re getting rid of all of the asshole customers we had to deal with this past week,” Marie had told her. “A little pain for pleasure.”
Ann was all for pain. She preferred hot baths — scalding ones, in fact. Her fingers right now were becoming shriveled, to the point that the outside layer of skin was almost melting off.
“Nine-teen. Nine-teen.” One of the masseuses called out. The slick plastic table next to her was empty.
Ann drew herself out of the tub. The tile floor was slippery and she clutched onto her washcloths and envelope while holding her thin cotton robe and towel over her bare front. The massage-table area smelled dank and slightly syrupy — not a fragrance that she had ever encountered before.
Number 19, her black hair frizzed from a bad perm and held back with bobby pins, must have been in her mid-forties at least. The skin around her jowls, below her armpits, and around her belly seemed soft and pudgy. Ann had seen that look before. It was comforting, reassuring. She could imagine melting in those fleshy arms so that her body would no longer be floating without an anchor.
Number 19 took Ann’s robe and towel and hung them on a hook beside a steaming barrel of water. The envelope went on a shelf. “Lie down.” She nudged Ann toward the slippery plastic table. Even that gentle touch made Ann flinch — when was the last time someone had touched her bare back? Ann did as she was told, turning her head toward the left. She could see that the waistband of Number 19’s black panties was torn. The masseuse took one of the pink washcloths and Ann heard her squirt liquid — the seaweed salt treatment, no doubt — onto the center of the mitt.
The slosh of water from the barrel came next. It was lukewarm, not hot like the Jacuzzi’s water.
Then Number 19 began scrubbing her shoulders, her backside, her legs. Ann now understood what Marie was talking about. All the bad residue from work seemed to be stripping away from her body, breaking up, disintegrating with each scrub and rinse of water.
Number 19 then tapped Ann on the shoulder and gestured for her to turn over.
Ann didn’t have much breasts to speak of. It didn’t bother her that they looked more like a chubby pubescent boy’s chest, rather than a woman’s. She had no desire to buy implants like a few of her co-workers. She remembered when her body was just developing and she was sitting in the backyard with her mother, aunt, and a girl cousin about Ann’s same age — maybe ten. Ann didn’t know why, but all of a sudden her mother and aunt lifted up Ann and her cousin’s cotton shirts and undershirts, revealing puffs of growing breasts. They each squeezed a breast as if they were testing rolls of bread in an oven. The two women then laughed and returned to their cigarettes and gossip. Ann and her cousin didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Ann didn’t feel violated or abused, just that she wasn’t privy to a secret that her body apparently held.