Paying for It

During the five years I worked in massage parlours, I often contemplated the value of labour and the structures that existed—or didn’t—to give certain types of labour its value. I don’t believe jobs involving sex or intimacy are inherently more exploitive than any other, but I believe many precarious jobs are often exploitive by nature of the broken structures that surround them: erratic pay, lack of safety, discrimination. This story reflects the way power dynamics impact two very different types of labour (both of which are often associated with women), and explores the ways we learn to survive under those dynamics. 

The night bylaw officers raid our massage parlour, we flee out the back like ants, snow crunching underfoot, sequins flashing under our winter coats. It’s a slow night and there’s nothing criminal about sitting in the dressing room of a massage parlour, but I follow the lead of my coworkers, fleeing not just the law, but the strangely intimate rituals of being policed. Once, I saw Hannah in the hallway during a raid, shivering in a bedsheet as an officer wrote her a ticket for being underdressed. You couldn’t pay me to do your job, he said, the sound of the ticket being ripped from the pad, like a whip. 

Wading through the parking lot, Martina grabs my parka and yanks me down behind a truck with her. For the briefest of seconds, a bolt of glee flashes through my body, before it collides with something that makes my stomach clench. We’re out here because we’ve taken a wrong turn, wanted the worst things. Back inside, a wall of men is waiting to remind us of this. We watch some coworkers hop the fence and scatter across the street, probably heading to the 24-7 coffee shop where they’ll have to dodge truckers’ advances for the next hour. Aisha’s still in a room doing who knows what with her client. Godspeed to her. The auto body shop beside the parlour is closed, so we settle in behind a bank of rusted-out cars and check our phones, waiting for the all-clear. I feel Martina’s breath on my neck, smell the burnt caramel of her body lotion as we watch the crack of light coming from the parlour’s back door, the cold rippling across our exposed skin. What a load of shit, she says. If I had a cop on my massage table, he’d enjoy it just as much as any other man.

In high school, I had a job cleaning rooms at a two-star motel where Gina, our head housekeeper, warned me the maintenance guy would snatch housekeepers’ tips from the nightstands before they could pocket them. Sun leaked through tattered curtains as we cleaned: pools of coffee grunge, discarded syringes, a nacho explosion trapped in shag carpet, and Gina’s bony dishrag hands scrubbing away, the flash of faded tattoos on her forearms. I use those goddamn tips to buy snacks for my kids, she muttered. But we needed that job and the maintenance guy knew it, so we let it slide. We all figure out how to survive, one way or another. 

Before I learned how to take the money and run, I learned how to give it up. 


The entire strip mall’s gone dark for the night, and soon, we will too. We’re doing math in our heads, hoping we made enough money earlier on shift, because even after the officers leave, slushy footprints and the red glow of electric bulbs in their wake, the parlour will be a dead zone. Word gets out fast, and nobody’s looking for a good time if they know law enforcement’s out. 

Behind us the main drag stretches out, where during the day fuel tankers rattle along, drivers in pickups cut between highways, swerve into drive-thrus for food they devour hunched at the wheel, salt and grease staining their palms. It’s a road people only take on their way somewhere else. Awash in darkness it defies time and place, a reminder that we don’t always know which detours we’ll take as we move through the world. I pull my gaze from it and catch Martina’s eye. Suddenly, we’re laughing. We try not to blow our cover, grabbing each other’s arms in hysteria, muffling the sounds on our jacket sleeves, but this only makes us laugh harder. It feels so ridiculous, the idea that every life choice we’ve ever made has led us to this moment: huddling in the dark, half-naked behind a thicket of junk cars, hiding from a bunch of officers who are probably just trying to pay their own bills and head home to the early morning oatmeal and quiet lawns of their suburban homes. Giddiness blooms in the cold winter air, tangible as the clouds of our breath. Wiping her eyes, Martina lights a cigarette and takes a drag, burgundy lipstick staining the end. The moon is high. Nobody can touch us.

Lana Hall is a writer based in Toronto, Canada whose work often examines the intersection of equity, labour, and the politics of urban life. Her journalism and essays have been published in The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, Catapult, Spacing Magazine, Parhelion Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. She is writing a memoir about her time working in the massage parlour business.



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An LSAT of Culture, Mike Yunxuan Li
Chichi and I, Noel Cheruto
Sudden Evolution, Eileen Tomarchio
Paying for It, Lana Hall
Decay, Rachel Lastra


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