When I was young, I thought I’d have a torrid affair with a circus artiste. I’d swoop into their life and save them, and we’d live happily ever after. Once I got into a mundane field of work, my chances of meeting circus artistes were next to nil, and I moved my fantasies to masseuses. They too were nomads, and often had escaped difficult regimes and families to make their living here. I also had fond memories of the highly skilled, highly educated Ayurvedic masseuses one finds in my home state.

The masseuse was a step down from the circus artiste, but I thought it had potential. The parlors usually had bordello themed decorations and tacky music. All of that seemed appealing to the hot-headed girl I was. Then I met them, and found that they spoke very little English, that they were mostly scared and meek and did not make eye-contact most of the time. I heard terrifying stories of exploitation. So that snuffed out all my glitzy dreams of saving one. I used to get massages when I was cycling a lot, to get my neck and shoulders back in working condition every other week. I tried whichever places were close enough and cheap enough. They spoke little, had little training or talent to speak of, and were utterly forgettable.

Then I got lucky, and met one in a dingy parlor nearby my internship, back in 2013. She was highly skilled. She spoke little to no English at the time. Her technique reminded me favorably enough of Keralite traditions that I became a regular. The dingy parlor closed, but I asked around and found that she was now working at a more upscale, respectable location, under a different name. That did wonders for her over the years. She got a valid Social Security number, her English slowly improved, her clothes looked better, and she began smiling at her clients. We began to slowly talk, and I learned her real name. She told me a bit about her family back in Thailand. She told me about her kids and how they were learning English faster than she was. After two years, she started refusing my tips. And right when I thought she could surprise me no more, she began asking me questions, in stilted, broken English, about my life.

I’d been raised semi-Catholic, and remember those confessional stands, the curtains and the seclusion, of whispering secrets into another’s ear, of waiting to be judged and forgiven. In the privacy of her parlor, with only the faint sounds of classical music to keep us company, I began telling her of my life. It was a clunky conversation often, as I scrambled to find words she understood, as I tried to explain in many different ways until she exclaimed in comprehension. Some sessions were quieter than the others, as she worked and as I let her work. Twice, she set up dates with other clients of hers. I was quite happily surprised by the men she had selected. If not for my resolution to stay away from dating men who work in the tech industry, I think I might have liked to see how things went.

I went in today after quite a long while. She asked me what had kept me away for so long. I told her about work and resigning from it, about being harassed at work and about how I’d been implicitly signalled to put up with it. Then I felt silly, because she had seen much worse, if that first dingy parlor was anything to go by. She must have sensed what I was thinking of, because she said that sort of stuff hadn’t happened in a long while to her. It happens to the young ones, she said. They tip well, those clients, she said, and she seemed serious enough that I felt very sorry for the world we live in.

When I set out to leave, she gripped my arm and told me in her broken English that I reminded her of the lotuses of Thailand. I asked her why. Eats mud, flowers for Gods, she said. She was smiling and serious, so I nodded, still poorly practiced in accepting compliments gracefully. She did not mind my clumsiness, and surprised me once more as she hugged me for the first time of her own initiative.

I didn’t find a torrid love in the massage parlors, but I found someone important nevertheless.