I took a final look at the building as I shouldered my backpack securely.
The manager had said, “Can you keep this a secret?”
Maybe. And maybe not.
This place had afforded me a good rest. Situated in a side lane leading away from the main road, you would have missed it if you weren’t looking. There weren’t enough lit windows on the upper levels.
I had hiked from the outskirts. My backpack was so much a part of me that I had stopped despising its weight. I had crossed roads trodden by more types of transportation than I was used to: horses and buffaloes sharing the smoky lanes alongside motorists, vans, buses and trucks. How did these animals breathe? I had been suffering after visiting a sulphuric lake located high up in the mountains to the south of the city. Silly me, I had not wanted to waste a day trip to the city. My breathing had grown more laboured and it was clear that I needed an inhaler. I was the reckless Millennial – backpacking with no insurance, experience or medicine.
Armed with an inhaler, I could now visit the places I had planned to. I had spent two nights here, recovering and planning for the next chapter in my trip. It had all the trappings of a tourist hotel – the receptionist behind her desktop, the unnecessarily long wooden table, the marbled stairwell leading up to the rooms. Once the staff had showed me to my room, I was ready to throw myself onto the bed. But, with some restraint, I acquitted myself of his hospitality and shut the door.
Alone, I surveyed my room. Sore as I was, I had learned enough from my travels.
I felt as good as new after unpacking and showering. Days of being on the road had coated my skin in a layer of grime and it felt good to scrub away with clean water and soap. Enclosed within the four walls of my room, I didn’t need to be on the lookout for pickpockets or thieves. Fenced off from a world as foreign to me as I was to it, I need not pretend to be bold or fierce. I could be myself at last.
A knock on the door pulled me out of my reverie. A man stood outside, short and broad-shouldered, like everyone else.
“You want anything? We have books downstairs, free breakfast tomorrow, drinks in the fridge. How about massage? We have a special one here – the jet-black massage, specially from China.”
His voice was the same sweet singsong lilt of the locals, one of many reasons why I enjoyed this trip so much. His face was honest and had none of the sharp looks of city people. He looked earnestly at me. “All the tourists like it, my jet-black stone, I bought it specially from China. You want to try?”
The first thing that sprang to mind was the constant ache in my back. Having seen not even a whisker of a foreigner here, I could understand the need to be an extremely gracious host. Perhaps they had hoped I would leave a good review for them on TripAdvisor. Perhaps they could give me what I really craved for: a good night’s sleep. One that would not be disrupted by the painful need to breathe.
An hour later I was lying on my tummy and he was kneading my shoulders expertly. There was no sound; I closed my eyes in trust of his expertise. The jet black, it turned out, is a black kidney-shaped stone. Using its pointed tip could alleviate the deepest muscle aches, he claimed. As he worked his way from my shoulders downwards, my aches and weariness melted away. My world was confined to the bed, to the cool black stone; to the darkness behind my eyelids.
When I turned around to lie on my back, his touch had become hesitant. The aches had disappeared, a testament, surely, to his expertise. The session must be ending soon. An unexpected refreshment. He was an honest man, like every local here.
His fingers creeped past my navel.
Was he going to massage that? Maybe this was another novelty here. I would remain open-minded. The warm towel lay above my nether regions; it had been discreetly placed there during the session.
When his fingers lifted its edges stealthily, I spoke: “No, not there.”
Then he started. Shifted his chair.
Picked up his things.
And he was out, running, leaving me in the room, the door wide open.
I was left to myself, pacing the room, facing the walls, bracing myself against the arousal – the arousal that I had refused to be affected by. Paranoia attempted to grip my mind. I held my breathe. In out, in out. Nothing happened. It’s just my body, not my mind.
A furious litany.
It had been later in the evening when the manager approached me. “My friend is not right in the head. Please. Can you keep this a secret?”
The next day, a well-planned trip to the pharmacy and the barrage of information on how to get to a certain region.
“You will need to get to the Central Bus Station where the red and the blue buses are. Head to Circaheum,” he said as they wrote it down for me before teaching me how to pronounce it – cer-ka-hem.
In the nights, the melodies of guitars accompanied their singsong voices and the laughter of the tourists as we were invited to sing along, our voices melding together into the green canopy of leaves above.
All these and more, the warmth and hospitality. The mistake, unwittingly made, and probably always repeated. How many times had he uttered his apology? I thought of the manager, sincere in his apology. I imagined my masseuse, sitting in the dark, guilt-stricken and forlorn.
Fonder than I dared admit, I shouldered my backpack, took a final look at the building, and walked away.
Carol Lim is a bilingual writer, having graduated from NTU with a degree in Chinese Studies and immersing herself in both English and Chinese creative writing. Juggling writing, working, travelling, and researching, her interests span poetry, fantasy, myths and legends across Asian and European cultures. She is particularly inspired by writings of the female experience and enjoys narratives with female protagonists and happy endings.