Secret Lives

My Secret Life as an Underage Massage Therapist

As my hands addressed their aches and pains, my clients shared their fantasies and fears with 15-year-old-me. Little did they know, I was dealing with family drama of my own.

My Secret Life as an Underage Massage Therapist

“You have a lot of knots this time,” I mumbled, trying my best to sound experienced.

I let my hands glide over his shoulder blades in robust bilateral movements, kneading my thumbs into the smaller tendons. The sweat that leaked down my cheeks had begun to form a thick ring around my neckline. The client was a six-foot professional boxer with a dry sense of humor and a penchant for deep tissue massages. He wore his dark hair short and would randomly touch his goatee before settling into our session. I always dreaded the athletes. Unlike my other repeat clients, who normally required a soft touch and a therapeutic ear, athletes were bulkier and their muscles tougher to dig into.

I carefully slathered on more cinnamon oil, shifting my weight on one foot while pressing my fists into dense muscle. My 5-foot-3 frame was a contrast to his bulky physique. And though my body had developed ahead of my age, I still carried a baby face.

This was not how I had anticipated my summer playing out, but at 15, securing a first-time job that paid more than four times the minimum wage sounded too good to pass up — or so insisted the kind Vietnamese couple who owned the small spa near my home. I’d been working for them sporadically for the last two months, making $30 an hour — sometimes $50 with tips.

“Remember, if clients ask, you are 18,” they carefully reminded. Lying about my age gave me a twinge of regret. What would happen if someone found out? I imagined a social worker arriving at my doorstep, or police arresting my parents. Or maybe nothing would happen at all.

I liked this spa from the first time I visited it with my parents, who had worked there as massage therapists for the past few months. The friendly owners always offered me some special concoction while I waited for them — homemade yogurt, free samples of hand lotion that smelled of lavender and eucalyptus.

My parents were in the middle of a separation that summer, and my mother had flaked on a client last minute without telling my father. I was caught in the middle.

“I don’t want to lose this job. Can you take your mom’s place?” my father asked from the living room, while covering the receiver. I looked at his nervous expression and nodded, with hesitation. Up until that moment, I had never given a stranger a massage — I’d only ever given family members the occasional back rub, but I knew we couldn’t afford to pass up an ongoing gig that paid well.

My first session with a male client was something of a disaster. A sheet covered all of his intimate parts, yet touching a stranger’s skin gave me a breathless sensation in my throat. In the beginning of the massage, I fumbled awkwardly — dividing my time between limbs, as my father had instructed, but forgetting several steps in the process while watching the wall timer. Friendly family neck rubs hadn’t prepared me for the exertion of the work itself, which demanded my full attention and upper body strength. I spilled oil on the sheet and could feel my heart thudding through my neckline. The panic I felt about massaging another person’s naked body was only matched by my fear of disappointing them. The client — a ripped athlete with dark hair — hardly noticed.

Afterward, he handed me a $15 tip on top of the $30 I had earned.

From that moment on, I was hooked.

Having grown up in a family of massage therapists, I was no stranger to spas and massage parlors. My favorite was another of my mother’s longtime regular employers, Carlotta’s, where blonde women flocked to the vanilla-scented sitting areas and draped their long limbs over upholstered chairs. The owner, Carlotta, hovered over her employees and spoke with a thick Southern drawl, chatting with customers and selling up the latest specials. She highly recommended the Swedish massage — “Melts the stress right off!”

At Carlotta’s, I sipped sweet tea for hours and skimmed teen magazines while waiting for my mother’s shift to end. It was 1999, and Britney Spears headlined the covers, along with the Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera. “Your daughter has such pretty dark hair,” Carlotta would say, motioning with her hands. “Some highlights would look good with your skin, honey.” I nodded and smiled politely — there weren’t many other biracial teens in my community, and I relished her compliments.

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My Honduran mother was a novelty among the upper-middle-class clients who delighted in her foreign accent and small hands. “Your mama’s the popular one around here,” the hairstylists would eagerly chime. In these salons, my mother was transformed from an olive-skinned outsider with a thick accent into someone of expertise and interest. Unlike our white neighbors, who were dismissive of us as we passed them during their daily walks, my mother’s clients worshiped her. Looking polished in her pink scrubs, she thrived on her knowledge of tension points and the best way to release a knot. Here, her palms held magic.

But outside of the salon, things were very different for my mother. She went years without driving, relying on my father for transportation. She had no family nearby. No support system other than three kids to look after.

When I was 11, we spent a year in Honduras. My parents, my two brothers and I traveled several hours from our rented home to a tiny village where a renowned witch doctor lived. The woman was said to be able to cure innumerable ills with a simple touch of her hands. This wasn’t unusual for my parents, who sought the advice of psychics and tarot card readers for all manner of ailments.

My mother was convinced that someone who envied us had placed a spell on our family, which accounted for her poor health and constant fighting with my father.

During the trip, I sat upright in the back of the truck and traced the serpentine paths leading to the steep hillside. As my father shifted gears in preparation for the rough terrain, I mentally rehearsed all of the questions I had for the witch doctor: Who put this spell on us? Could she make my mother’s explosive temper go away? Or my father’s fixation with the past?

Before we could reach the top, I heard the tires spin wildly until the entire truck stopped moving altogether. It had rained the night before, and we were trapped in a thick sheet of mud. My father stayed behind the wheel as the rest of us leaped out and began pushing, to no avail — we were undeniably stuck. There would be no witch doctor — instead, we spent the next two hours trekking downhill in the blistering sun.

We never tried to visit the witch doctor again, but I often thought about what we would have found. Would my parents’ marriage have been saved? Would she have placed her hands on their foreheads and cured what had long been broken?

On several occasions when my father couldn’t lift himself from the sofa for days at a time, I’d put my small palms on his cheeks and feel the warmth emanating from his skin to mine. In those moments, I felt his deep sadness seep into my throat. “This is better than any pill,” he would tell my mother.

How many times did my father tell me about all the wars he lived through? The one in Vietnam he had narrowly escaped as a young man after being drafted, and the one in El Salvador he had endured as a Peace Corps volunteer before marrying his second wife, who later died in a tragic car accident. Having a family is my saving grace, he said so often. When the flashbacks from his past became too intense, my mother criticized his lack of self-control — creating a deeper chasm between them. Even as a child, I understood that my father’s demons lived alongside us. I also knew that I was the only one listening.

The first time my parents separated, I was 4 years old, and my brother and I lived in a small apartment with my mother on the outskirts of Orlando. I remember my mother’s long flowing hair on the sheets of our bed and the warm embrace of safety in the mornings. Even then, my parents’ fights were frightening.

Before their separation, I recall my father hurling a glass vase against the wall and it instantly shattering into a hundred small pieces. My mother’s anger would often surpass his, shoving my father against walls and cussing at him in Spanish. She resented the cultural shock she had been forced to adapt to, the endless uncertainty of relying on my father’s support, her absolute dependence on him in a foreign land. My father, in turn, couldn’t grasp these anxieties and disappeared for lengths at a time, overwhelmed by her incessant need.

I kept my despair a secret, pushing out thoughts of baby dolls and playgrounds so that I could be the mediator — part child, part mother, part spouse — the one they sought for solace. This is what daughters do for their parents, I told myself. Showing my dread would have meant breaking a code of silence.

Once my younger brother was born, my parents reconciled long enough to leave the golden sheen of Florida for the promise of a kinder north, in Georgia.

Usually, my clients asked where I was from, just to make small talk before the massage. Saying I was American made their faces scrunch up in confusion, so I explained how my Caucasian father was from the U.S. and my mother from Central America. “I’m a mutt, basically,” I laughed — then they would smile.

The majority of my clients were white Southerners; knowing how to make them feel at ease was part of the job. I became good at listening and quickly finding stubborn knots.

One client was a polite businessman well into his 40s who rarely spoke but tipped well. I would ask about his day and rub his hands in oil — he preferred this over his shoulders or back. “Hands can be full of stress but are rarely given enough attention,” I said gently. In that moment, pressing my thumbs into his palms, I felt the tension of his day course through my body, as if I too, had lived its strain.

Working as a masseuse wasn’t without its perils. One client refused to leave on the small towel covering his backside. This was my first experience seeing a man’s naked body, and acting afraid would only have revealed me as a fraud. I felt my stomach reflexively tighten and my throat begin to close. Would he complain and cost me my job?

At 15, I didn’t know how to ask a grown man to please cover himself. Instead, I made up an excuse about forgetting my oil bottle and quietly exited the room.

“He won’t keep his towel on,” I said in a low, tremulous voice.

“Don’t worry, I take care of it,” the male owner motioned for me to go to the small kitchenette. I nodded in thanks and kept my head down, imagining angry words being yelled and threats of calling the police.

I didn’t hear what was said, but that client left quietly and never returned.

Another man in his 40s seemed overly cautious when the owners introduced me. “You look awfully young to be a massage therapist,” he said, eyeing me up and down and then sideways, as if expecting a cop to materialize from the other room.

Sometimes, male clients would remark on my young appearance. “You sure you’re 18, honey?” they would ask with a wide grin before lying across the table. Something told me it was part of the allure that kept them coming back. These were much older men who asked for “glute” rubs or parted their legs in such a way that the small towel covering their waist would reveal glimpses of their anatomy. I often froze initially, then continued with the massage, pretending not to notice.

Then came the questions. Do you have a boyfriend? These male clients wanted to know. No? A pretty girl like you?

In fact, I’d never even been kissed, I wanted to tell them — but I kept this fact hidden along with my age.

Later, they’d hand me a large tip, letting their palms linger for a while before telling me they’d be back soon.

After these massages, I felt a mix of relief and nausea sweep over me. I told myself the whole thing was routine — the way a doctor or nurse would tend to a patient.

I don’t remember telling my parents what happened when I got home later, only that after these episodes I always felt a lingering dread of going back. If I told them, would they have asked me to quit? Or would they have told me it was just part of the job? It was easier not knowing and learning to acclimate. My father had expressed pride in my ability to deceive clients about my age and earn such high wages in my first job. His confidence in my abilities convinced me that the work was worth its costs.

I was too young to own a car and relied on my father for drop-offs and pickups — sometimes waiting several hours after a client had left. But I didn’t mind — sitting in the small reception area was safer than listening to heated arguments at home. I became accustomed to warm tea and long chats with the owners, listening as they told me about arriving in America and building their business from nothing. How they missed their home country but loved the freedom of working toward a dream. Their spa was pristine white with containers full of pink Himalayan sea salts and green masks lining the walls. I was served bite-sized sweets and asked about my summer plans outside of work. “Hopefully, I can save enough to visit my best friend in Boston,” I smiled.

“You are good girl,” they would say and offer me more tea.

The past year had turned into a battleground for my two brothers and me. My parents’ separation had gotten ugly, with my mother disappearing for days at a time, and my father increasing his reliance on any work he could find. When they weren’t fighting, the house was haunted by their unsaid words.

“Get me out of here,” I would beg my older brother, who owned a car. We became experts at making our presence at home as sparse as possible, frequenting public libraries, malls and gas stations. We subsisted on fast food and MTV reruns. We fled to new age shops like The Phoenix & Dragon, where racks of books and crystals lined the entryway. There I read about the transference of energy through touch, and how a person can have both good and bad energy. “After a massage, you shake off the negative energy like this with your hands,” I demonstrated for my brother as we left.

In the evenings after work, I locked my door and set up a small altar on a shelf in the middle of my room with candles and rose petals. I recited poetry like prayers and thought about what I would ask the witch doctor. If I thought long and hard enough, I could conjure her faceless shape and feel the strain of the day slip off.

Most of the time, my clients came to me looking for kind words. One woman with badly dyed hair would lay across the massage table and tell me how overwhelmed and lonely she felt within her family. She had a workaholic husband, two small boys, and a cat that was always causing trouble. “I never feel good enough,” she’d blink back tears. I placed my palms over her face and applied pressure to her forehead. “You’re doing a great job,” I would tell her gently.

At the end of the massage, she would thank me with a large wad of cash and say, “I should pay you instead of my therapist.”

After these sessions, I had the same feeling my mother must have had after a massage with the clients who loved her so much — there was a sense of belonging found in another person’s skin, in listening to their story and providing comfort. My palms felt powerful — capable of healing.

I stashed my hard-earned money in a drawer and wondered what my classmates were doing over their summer break, and whether they, too, would have to keep it a secret.

My life as a masseuse came to an end pretty much the same way it started: I began flaking on repeat clients the way my mother had. The same way a lover ghosts a bad relationship. The owners of the Vietnamese spa would call, and I felt a stammer of relief and shame when I refused to work.

“I’m just not feeling up to it,” I’d tell my father. Something didn’t feel right — I don’t want to keep lying. Only there was more I couldn’t share: a sense that part of my childhood had been left behind on each client’s body.

I never found the cure for my mother’s rage or my father’s sadness. After my parents’ divorce a year later, I drove along the curved roadside lined with red maple trees and saw a shimmer of birds heading south, their ascent both swift and unrepentant. I took the long way home, marveling at the fallen leaves that marked the imminence of change — a transference from one life to another.

The winter after I turned 16, I found a part-time job that paid minimum wage working as a teacher’s assistant at a daycare, changing diapers and wiping snot from small noses.

Sometimes a child would come to me crying, and I would kneel down and place my palms on their cheeks and say, “Everything’s going to be OK.” And I’d believe it, too.