Mmmm. . .
Mika made a wordless sound of pleasure, despite herself.
“Cheb mai kap (is it painful)?” a gentle voice asked worriedly.
“Mai, mai, sabai dee (no, no, it feels good),” Mika assured him with a smile, her eyes closed.
This is heaven…
Mika tried to refrain from letting out any more sounds so that her masseuse would not loosen his pressure. Kneaded, stretched, and pressed, she felt her muscles gradually softening. The stagnant blood started to flow again, bringing welcomed warmth to her cold-stiffened body. Thai massage starts with your feet. The expert masseuse used his soft but strong fingers to knead each toe while he pressed his strong thumb into the arch of her foot. The pressure of a single finger on a small spot of her arch sent an electric-like shock through to Mika’s head. It was painful but strangely pleasant. It was like a hidden locked spot of exhaustion was finally revealed and mercifully treated. His warm fingers and palms were consistent and tireless, tending each aching muscle, from foot to leg, hand to arm, back to shoulder and head. Mika could feel the tension easing with each stroke, slowly but steadily, until it finally melted away. There was no way around it. Thai massage felt good. So good.
Mika wandered between reality and dream, half awake, half asleep.
This is heaven…
She whispered silently, leaving her whole body defenceless to the masseuse.In downtown Bangkok, you could find a massage parlour on every block, in all sorts of arrangements, from proper, traditional massage parlours to shady, suspicious-looking ones. Mika avoided shops called “Cherry Blossom” or “Big Mango” or “Tropical Paradise.” One time she walked into a small shop someone recommended and found a white board saying “Absolutely No Sex” in large red letters. At first she thought it was a joke but decided that might not be the case. The plain-looking receptionist sitting on a vinyl-covered chair at a steel desk didn’t even smile. Her matter-of-fact expression made Mika realise that there were people, probably tourists (the notice was written in English), who would expect such service in “the City of Angels,” even in this humble-looking shop. Most massage parlours provided “absolutely no sex” traditional Thai massage. They were usually small townhouse shops, simple and plain, charging a mere four hundred baht ($12) for two hours. It was incredibly cheap for such labor-intensive work. Mika was not sure how the businesses could survive, but it seemed more and more shops were popping up since she came to Bangkok.
Mika went for a massage at least once a month, if not every other week. She tried a bunch of different massage parlours to conclude that more expensive did not necessarily mean better. Some fairly big standalone shops, with branches at several locations and English speaking receptionists managing masseuses and customers, charged 50% more than the average. They were clean and modern, with value-added services like herbal tea in a celadon cup, aromatic fragrance, and so-called healing music. But the masseuses’ skills were not necessarily the best. Mika found the best ones were those with minimal services, no hot towel, no herbal tea, no healing music, only the massage. No fancy decorations on the walls, just the masseuses’ certificates proudly framed and hung where everyone could see. Interestingly, these places had a mix of male and female masseuses, while most regular massage parlours had only female masseuses. If she had a choice of a male or female masseuse, Mika would choose a male every time. Her friends thought it was uncomfortable to be touched all over by a male stranger, but Mika didn’t feel that way. They were professional (at least at the massage parlours that she frequented), and men have bigger hands and stronger pressure. Even with the same level of pressure, she found that the male’s controlled pressure was much more comfortable and effective than the female’s utmost pressure. Mika felt secure in the hands of controlled pressure.
Mika would get a massage whenever she felt tired, physically or emotionally, which was, unfortunately, more often than she wished. “I understand massage works when you are physically tired,” Asako once inquired. “But what do you mean, emotionally? How does massage work for emotional stress?” “You don’t know?” Mika raised her eyebrows unnaturally; she knew she was exaggerating her expression. “Body and mind are one. When you are emotionally stressed, your body also gets stressed. When your body relaxes, your mind also relaxes.” She hoped she didn’t sound like a new-wave spiritual brochure. “Is that right? Then we should export Thai massage to the U.S. People spend a fortune on counselling there. If your theory is true, Thai massage could heal their problems. We could be billionaires!” Asako was mocking Mika’s theory, but Mika wasn’t offended. Asako had no way of knowing that Mika knew more about this than she let on. Actually, in addition to massage, Mika had spent a fortune on counselling at Bumrungrad Hospital, one of the exclusive private hospitals in Bangkok. Mika thought about telling Asako, but she didn’t. It was not because she wanted to keep it a secret (she had told Mitsuko and Yurie), but because she didn’t want to upset Asako with her problems. Mika knew that, underneath her tough demeanour, Asako was sensitive, especially to other people’s pain.
Mika had never thought she would become a regular customer of massage parlours at this age. She was still in her early forties. When she was a child, massage was for elderly people, usually men. A massage parlour was for “Grandpa” or a tired “salary man,” but not for middle-aged housewives, at least not for ordinary housewives she knew, like her mother or aunts. Nor had Mika thought she would need professional counselling. She used to think counselling was for those really unfortunate who had no friend to talk to or who were mentally ill. She never thought she would need extensive counselling for herself. When she was in her early twenties, she used to imagine herself as a forty year old woman, mature and strong in her prime. She had once thought she would be in full bloom now, radiating confidence and happiness as a wife, as a mother, maybe as a career woman too. Confucius said forty was the age of “no confusion.”
Where did I go wrong? She was confused. And it seemed there was no way out. Mika hadn’t slept with her husband for . . . how long was it now? Longer than she could remember. She didn’t think that was the cause of her depression. It was simply a symptom. A sexless marriage was nothing particularly unusual for Japanese couples, or so she had read in a gossipy women’s magazine. More than half of couples had no sex for longer than a year, it said. So, she thought, we’re just one of them. It is not a big deal. What surprised her was that more than 70% of those other sexless couples claimed they still loved their spouses. Mika could not say she loved her spouse. She didn’t hate him, but she didn’t love him, either. Both words, love and hate, were too strong and too real for her inactive feeling. Maybe her feelings for him were locked up somewhere deep inside her where they couldn’t be easily retrieved. It would be easier for Mika to understand her feelings if Takeshi had a fateful flaw, like adultery, alcoholism, or domestic violence. Then she could have blamed him for the cause. But he didn’t have any faults Mika could express in words. Yet just imagining years ahead with Takeshi made her feel she was about to suffocate.
Where did we go wrong? Mika wondered if Takeshi loved her, but it didn’t matter. She didn’t care. Surely, they had once been in love. They had met at a party in Manhattan when Takeshi was working for the United Nations and Mika was an art history graduate student at New York University. In their first conversation, they discovered they both were alumni of Keio University, one of the top private universities in Japan. Realizing they had some friends in common, they planned to catch up again soon. They had quickly become close. Mika remembered a long summer afternoon sipping chilled white wine together on the grass of Central Park, listening to a jazz band. She also remembered a frozen winter evening, walking on Fifth Avenue, stopping in front of the windows of luxurious shops, their hands together in a warm pocket of his coat. Now those memories flashed back like scenes in a romantic movie. She was sure they had been in love then.
Mika had planned to return to Japan after obtaining her master’s degree, but when she finished, she stayed on. She told her mother about a great opportunity to work for an art gallery in New York that would help her get a better job later in Japan. That was not a lie, but above all, she wanted to stay with Takeshi. Mika enjoyed working in Manhattan, getting involved in the lively art world and meeting all sorts of interesting people. And Takeshi was great company. After work, she often stopped by his apartment to tell him about events at her gallery or people she met. He sipped a glass of wine, relaxed on the La-Z-boy, and listened to her endless chatting with a smile. She loved his calm smile. Mika spent many evenings in his apartment, sometimes overnight. Her friends asked why she didn’t move in with him. It would surely be more economical. But she kept her small apartment because she liked the feeling that they were equal and independent partners. Takeshi was self-sufficient and didn’t expect her to wait on him or take care of daily chores for him. Unlike traditional Japanese men, he was not demanding. But he was there when she needed him. Mika liked that.
Then, nearly a year after they started dating, Mika got pregnant. She had been taking birth control pills, so this was an inexplicable and unwelcome surprise. She had always imagined being a mother someday, but not this soon. She wanted to focus on her exciting career. She hadn’t even been thinking about marrying Takeshi. Mika enjoyed his company immensely, and she assumed Takeshi felt the same about her, but they’d just been dating. They hadn’t talked about a more serious commitment. She thought about aborting it without telling him. She knew Takeshi didn’t want to have children. He had once said he would not want such responsibility. If she just took care of it quietly, they could continue to stay what they were, a happy couple, independent partners, without any commitment or responsibility. But then, a life was starting there, whether she’d wished it or not. The baby was theirs, not just hers. Shouldn’t this be their decision? Mika knew she couldn’t deal with it alone and then act as if nothing had happened.
It was a Sunday afternoon in November, rainy outside, but warm inside his apartment. Takeshi made coffee, grinding the beans himself. He brought Mika a cup, and they sat side-by-side on the sofa. Mika loved the fragrance of coffee. She inhaled. A quiet Sunday afternoon filled with the aroma of coffee. She wanted to freeze this moment in her mind, before she shattered it. Looking down at her cup, rather than at Takeshi, she said, “I’m pregnant.” Mika tried to make it sound the same as if she’d said, “It’s raining.” Takeshi’s response was equally calm. “I thought you were using a contraceptive.”
“I was.” “Then, why?” “I don’t know.” Takeshi didn’t say anything for a while. He appeared emotionless. Obviously he was not thrilled with the news, but he didn’t panic, either. He sounded even gentle when he asked, “What will you do?”
Mika felt the prick of a sharp needle to her heart. Those four words, carefully or carelessly chosen, changed their lives forever. If he had asked, “What should we do?” or even, “What would you like to do?” they could have had a conversation, come to a shared decision.
Instead, Mika’s response surprised herself. “I will keep it.” She was unnecessarily stern, so that she would not show the true weakness of this wobbly decision. Looking back on that day, Mika still didn’t know why she had gotten so stubborn. She had been leaning toward abortion until that moment. She knew it was a practical solution, though not an easy decision. Life is a gift, she had thought. Shouldn’t one always accept a gift graciously? Yes, but when you are not ready and cannot be responsible, isn’t it better to tap the “delete” key?
Really? Should you give up the baby so easily just because you didn’t plan it? Life is full of the unpredictable. Shouldn’t you change yourself to accommodate and make best of it? But what if I don’t want to? Shouldn’t I have that choice? Mika had gone through this monologue over and over in her mind. And she had planned to make it a dialogue with Takeshi. She had wanted to go through this process with him so that they could make a decision together. Because it was their baby, their reality, and above all, their future. If he had asked her to get an abortion, she would have done it. All she needed was Takeshi’s support to make the decision. But he didn’t offer an opinion or any support. He didn’t argue anything. He simply said, “If you say so,” as if giving up on a stubborn girl, and then he stood up to get another cup of coffee. Mika wanted to scream at his back, but she didn’t know for what. She’d made a decision, and he had agreed. That was it. Marika arrived seven months later.
To be fair, Takeshi was a gentleman. He did what he was supposed to do – registered a marriage, accompanied her to medical appointments, acted like a model father. When he was around, he fed Marika, bathed her, and even changed her diapers. What was there to complain about? Yet…Mika couldn’t help but feel Takeshi was just doing his duty. Shouldn’t she sense more love and joy coming from him, even if fatherhood had been unexpected? Mika could feel he didn’t totally accept this course of life. Then again, she might be too sensitive, over-reading him. Her hormones after the delivery could distort reality, right? Other times, she thought, So what if he actually hasn’t accepted the reality? What would be the point in asking? She didn’t want to label the baby as “unwanted.”
Mika was bouncing a ten month old, giggling Marika on her lap when Takeshi announced he’d accepted a post in Bangkok, starting in two months. Mika’s eyes went wide at her husband. She stopped smiling at the baby and pulled her close to her bosom. “Why didn’t you say anything about applying for the post?” Mika surprised them both with this slight push back. “I didn’t know if I would get the position.” He shrugged, like it hardly mattered. “What about us? What about my career?” “You are not working anyway.” “But it’s only temporary. Until Marika starts school. New York has better opportunities for me in the art business, don’t you think?” Mika had quit her job when Marika came. At the time, Takeshi was of the opinion that she didn’t have to change her whole life because of the baby, but Mika couldn’t imagine leaving her child with a stranger in a foreign country. Takeshi knew she had always intended to go back to work.
“Well,” said Takeshi, “if you don’t want to move, you don’t have to come.” His tone said, End of argument. Just like that? You can leave Marika and me just like that? Family being together doesn’t mean anything to you? She didn’t speak, because she didn’t know what she should argue for. Takeshi was not forcing her to do anything, and she knew he would act dutifully one way or the other. If she decided to follow, he would include them in his life in Bangkok. If she decided to stay in New York, he would, she was certain, provide for them financially.
Stunned into silence, Mika rose to bathe her daughter. It was a little earlier than her routine, but sensing the tension, Marika had started to fuss, and Mika needed an excuse to leave the living room. She ran hot water in the bath and splashed water gently onto Marika and then onto her own face, so her tears wouldn’t be noticed. Marika giggled and Mika was soothed by her daughter’s joy and the steam and sweet smell of baby shampoo filling the small bathroom. Mika remembered one day, a few months earlier, when Takeshi had invited her to meet him after his workday for a concert at a theatre uptown. Mika didn’t want to go out. She was always tired, and she worried about leaving Marika with a babysitter, even for a couple of hours. But Takeshi had insisted they needed time alone and she needed to get out of the house and breathe some fresh air. It was unusual for him to insist, so she accepted.
Mika felt her spirits lift as she dressed up for an evening occasion, putting on a little makeup and slipping her feet into stockings and high heels, which she had not done since midway through her pregnancy. She felt renewed as she hurried to meet her husband in front of the theatre. When she caught Takeshi’s eye, she smiled at him. It was indeed good for us to get some time alone, she thought. But just as she was reaching for his arm, he turned and walked toward the entrance without waiting for her. No “Hi,” no hug. She stood there, a few feet away from him, watching his back. For a second, she thought about going home.
Now, as Mika played with Marika, she felt she was watching his back again. Even if I had gone home that evening, he would have enjoyed the concert alone. He will go to Bangkok whether I follow him or not. She knew he would be fine with or without her and Marika. In the end, she decided a child needs a father, and Takeshi was actually a good father, or at least acted as such. And she was not ready for the life of a single mother. But maybe she should have chosen that path. It would have been tough, but she might have been happier…
Once again, Mika could not hold her voice. The masseuse was moving onto her back after massaging her legs and arms. He pressed his elbow slowly on her back, giving her a dull pain yet releasing the tension. His elbow slid one inch at a time from the shoulder to the lower back, first down the right side of her spine, and then down the left side. As the masseuse continued his slow kneading, Mika considered how perfect the human body was as a tool for giving massage. Besides regular use of fingers and palms, the elbow, forearm, and even foot could find its most appropriate use as an instrument in massaging another human’s tired body. No technology, no equipment, no electricity. Just simple body parts of one human being performing such a perfect job on another.
And the warmth. The warmth of the masseuse’s skin was such a comfort by itself. Mika hadn’t realised before how relaxing it was to feel the warmth of another person’s skin on her skin. Not too cold, not too hot, but just the right warmth to soothe. It even helped that there was no emotional intimacy between the masseuse and Mika. Just a simple trade of the service for its fee. That was enough. More than enough. The warmth of another person, without any emotion, was good enough to make her feel calm and restful. Mika had to admit that if she left Bangkok right now, she would miss this masseuse, whose name she didn’t even know, more than her husband.
Mika had heard people say that Thai massage is a temporary cure for tiredness. It does not solve a fundamental problem. So what? Mika thought. A fundamental problem cannot be solved easily. But it’s much better to feel good even for a short while than spend all my time hopeless in a dark hole… Mika felt like crying. Then the masseuse’s big hands patted her shoulders and back. A sign of the end of the massage. Oh, please don’t stop. Another round, please. “Sabai dee mai khap? (Do you feel better?)” The warm voice spoke above and behind her. “Yes, yes. Sabai dee. (I feel better.) Khob khun kha. (Thank you.)” Mika gave a 200B tip to the masseuse, quite generous for Thai standards, and took a deep breath before stepping out into the blinding sunlight.
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