…and my blatant use of the Oxford comma.
Things have been hectic here. I have been moving, moving, moving. And when I’m not packing, I’m painting rooms.
Regardless, I wanted to write this short story to submit to Reedsy’s weekly contests. When I saw the topic, I jumped on it. It’s based on a true story I heard from a friend who is a massage therapist. I’ve been thinking about turning it into a short story for a long time, so I’m glad to share it at last.
Getting my entry submitted amidst the moving chaos was tough, though. The formatting got screwed up after I posted it and I was up until 11:59 PM Friday, typing right until the deadline, trying to fix it. I managed to complete it on time, but I don’t know if there were formatting errors in the final version. Oh well. I’m honestly just happy I put it out there.
Sammy, Tammy, and Pearl
“You sure you don’t want to meet for a drink?” The greasy man asks, his raspy voice muffled as he lays belly-down on the massage table. “I’m only here for one night. Let’s make it a fun one, yeah?”
Aileen pulls her oily hands away from her massage client, wincing as her carpal tunnel flares up.
“Well?” he demands. “I’m a bit older, but I’m still fun! Hell, you can even call me Daddy if you want.”
“You’re all done!” Aileen says cheerfully. “Jasmin can take your payment outside.”
“I’ll pay you for the night. How about that?”
“Jasmin can take your payment outside.”
Aileen flees the room and shuts the door promptly before he can respond. She speeds past the reception desk towards the break room.
Jasmin, the only other massage therapist in the spa, locks eyes with Aileen and quickly pulls out the debit machine. She begins punching in the cost of the appointment. “Go! I’ll tell him you left.”
Aileen races into the break room and shuts the door. She lunges across the room for her bottle of Advil and takes three extra strength—probably too many, but stomach lining be damned, her wrists are killing her. She swallows the pills and leans against the door, listening. Mercifully, her client pays quietly and leaves.
The hotel spa was desperate for massage therapists. Tourism and travel had spiked, and rich people were coming to the city in droves. Here, Aileen was getting paid nearly double what she had been at her last health practitioner’s clinic. Spa work was hard work, though, with back-to-back appointments, rude clients, and brief breaks.
But worse, it was soulless. When Aileen worked in a health clinic, she felt she was making a difference. Clients would tell her about their lives, and not only would Aileen see the positive benefits of her work as they healed, she’d also help them with some of their other personal problems. She had taken pride in that.
But more importantly, not once had someone requisitioned her a happy ending. Here, it happened at least once a week, if not more.
“He’s gone!” Jasmin calls out.
Aileen slowly opens the door. She stands in the frame, watching Jasmin at the nearby reception desk that resembles a large marble tomb.
“He looked like Donald Trump and Eugene Levy had a lovechild,” Jasmin says, barely repressing her grin.
“Gross! You know what he told me? He’s on his third divorce, but he bragged about being a lawyer, which means he always gets the better deal.” Aileen wanted to vomit. “I’m going in to clean the room.”
Aileen entered the dim treatment room. She ripped the oily sheets off the table and threw them in the laundry hamper. Once upon a time, she’d prided herself in only speaking highly of her patients. Sure, they sometimes said pretty intense stuff on the table, but she liked helping them through it.
Now it was how much for a blow-job this, or do drugs with me in my suite that. It was enough to make Aileen scream. But the money was too good, and she had to pay off her student loan somehow. Thankfully, she rarely had repeat patients, and Jasmin was always happy to hear a good rant.
Sighing, Aileen left the small, artificially soothing room and went to the front desk. Jasmin sat behind it, grinding her teeth as she used the computer’s thin, expensive mouse to click through their schedule. Across from their large marble reception desk sat three elderly women, all wearing the same long-sleeved, loose sundress but in different pastel colors. Cool lavender, dusty pink, and baby blue.
Aileen was straight back to work with barely a second to breathe, let alone recover. She approached Jasmin apprehensively, trying not to look like she was walking into a dog fighting pit as she did.
Jasmin’s grimace screamed I’m just glad it isn’t me. “Thirty minutes each, back-to-back. I’d help, but I have a client coming soon for a 90-minute appointment.”
Aileen’s wrists and forearms screamed as if they were part of the conversation, too. It was always back-to-back. Why wasn’t the painkiller working?
One woman looked at her, and smiled, revealing a row of blindingly white dentures.
“Hi!” Aileen said with much fake cheer. “My name is Aileen. It sounds like I’ll be treating all three of you today!”
“Why yes!” The woman in the lavender dress perked up “We’re friends. Best friends! Have been since we were practically kids!”
“Hush. This poor young woman doesn’t care about that.” Pink says in a severe tone. “But yes, we are friends.”
“How nice!” Aileen responds. “Such a pleasure to meet you all. What are your names?”
“Sammy,” the woman in the pink dress says coldly.
“Tammy,” the lady in purple says, grinning from ear to ear.
“And Pearl,” the last one says with a sad motherly smile.
Aileen forced her lips to stay peeled back in a smile. “Who would like to go first?”
“I would!” Tammy pipes up.
Sammy and Pearl quickly agree to let Tammy go first.
Tammy breezes into the room, ranting vivaciously about how much she loves the city. She sits down in the large chair in the corner, adjacent to the massage table. Aileen does the usual. Asks Tammy if she has any areas she wants to target and her pressure tolerance. Tammy says she just wants a nice, easy back massage with light pressure.
It’s the only mercy Aileen is going to get today. Light pressure hurts her knuckles and wrists far less.
Aileen leaves the room while Tammy strips down. After a few minutes, she comes back in. Tammy is face down on the table. Aileen oils up her hands and begins massaging the lower back, lightly, as instructed. In Aileen’s experience, massage therapy is part massage, part actual therapy. In the past, some of her clients told her stuff she wasn’t paid enough to handle. And in Aileen’s experience, the peppiest ones tend to have the darkest stories. Except for the dark stories in the hotel spa usually involved cheating, lying, or straight-up malice.
Not this woman, though. Throughout the entire massage, she rants about how happy she is to be with her friends. From the sounds of things, they’ve practically grown up together.
Tammy keeps raving and raving, mostly about about her friends, who get along like three peas in a pod.
And Aileen’s painkiller has kicked in, too. Perfect.
Aileen finishes up with Tammy, who practically skips out. Pearl is next. Unlike Tammy, who had a bright presence, Pearl brings an air of poorly contained despair into the room. When she speaks, she keeps her blue eyes on the ground.
Aileen asks what she needs, and Pearl utters something relaxing—yes, anything, just relaxing.
Aileen decides to apply light pressure (mostly from her own damn pain) with a focus on Pearl’s upper and lower back muscles. She exits the room, lets Pearl change, and enters, beginning work on her back, which is angry. The muscles are full of knots and wound up so tight that Aileen sacrifices some of her well-being to apply a bit more pressure.
Pearl barely speaks. Until Aileen starts working out a particularly aggressive knot in her upper right shoulder, just under the blade.
“I want to be happy,” Pearl laments. “Thirty-five years we’ve known each other. That’s a special thing. When you’re young, you think everything will last forever. I hate to break it to you, dear, but the cliché is true: all good things come to an end. The only constant in my life has been these girls. They’re sisters to me.
“Sweet Tammy has been raving about this trip for weeks. She just loves spending time together. You know she’s a cancer survivor?”
Aileen raises her eyebrows. “That’s incredible.”
“She went into remissions just a few months back. We’re here to celebrate, and I’m ruining it. I’m ruining everything.” Her back tenses under Aileen’s touch. “I wish I could be happy, but I can’t help but feel like…like my husband is cheating on me.”
“Oh no!” Aileen blurts. “That’s awful. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“We’ve been together for thirty years. We’re not unhappy, but we’re not happy, either. Things were good for a time, but about twenty years ago, something just…changed.”
Aileen works through the knot, knowing it will only draw out more despair, but oddly, Aileen starts to feel lighter. Pearl isn’t just bragging about the Dior purse she swanned in the room with. She’s talking about something real…and something juicy she can tell Jasmin later.
Aileen applies just enough pressure to feel the knot loosen, but it won’t fully release. She presses harder, and finally, the knot releases. The overall tension in her shoulder eases, but there’s tightness still there. Pearl isn’t alright—not yet.
“I hope I don’t ruin our trip,” Pearl says. “I know I’ve been depressing and quiet. I can’t tell them why, though. They both have perfect marriages. They won’t understand. Please don’t say anything to Sammy.”
“My lips are sealed. And I’m sure you won’t ruin the trip. Tammy was so happy you’re here with her.”
Pearl’s entire back loosens at this. “I’m happy to hear that.”
Aileen wraps up with Pearl and invites the next client in: Sammy.
Same thing. What area? How much pressure?
Sammy wants a lot of pressure on her back, in particular her upper back. Aileen dreads the pain in her wrists, but smiles and agrees as always.
Aileen exits the room and goes to reception. She listens to a song played on a harp and sighs, hoping Pearl will be alright. After a few minutes, Aileen heads back to the treatment room and enters.
Back to work. She starts on Sammy’s lower back.
Sammy has good muscle density and tone. She’s fit. “Do you lift weights?” Aileen can’t help but ask.
“I do. Have been for years. I was a tennis player for a long time.” Sammy has an intense aura about her. “I’ll sometimes still play a game if the weather is nice, though.” Sammy pauses. “Did Pearl say anything in here?”
“Oh, not really,” Aileen says quickly. She might gossip with Jasmin, but she wasn’t about to lose her job over this drama.
“She seems sad,” Sammy presses.
“I think her back was bothering her.”
“No, she’s sad. Her husband is cheating on her.” At this, Sammy’s back loosens, but only slightly. “Has been for years.”
“Oh, that’s not good!” Aileen blurts a bit too dramatically.
“I would know,” Sammy says, her tone dark and filled with guilt. “I’m the one sleeping with him.”
Aileen freezes for a brief second, but recovers, letting out a fake cough before she continues working. “I see.”
“I know. Judge me all you want. But you don’t understand. You’re too young. Charles and I were meant to be together. We dated long before he and Pearl did.
“But then he went to work abroad. Got a job in government. He was gone for five years, and I didn’t think he was coming back. It wasn’t like it is now when I was young. There was no Facebook, and long-distance calls cost more than you make in an hour, I bet! He might as well have died.
“So, I started dating another man in the town. He wasn’t the most interesting person. Nothing like Charles, but he was kind. I married him, like an idiot.”
Aileen thought but bit her tongue as she ground her thumbs into Sammy’s knotted muscles, which were likely wound up from deceit.
“I loved Charles, but I had to move on. I finally reached a point where I accepted he was gone from my life. Until he came back.”
At this, Sammy’s entire back tenses. Aileen places her hand on it, saying try to relax in her most soothing voice possible. But Sammy doesn’t.
“I was married when he came back to Canada. We couldn’t just get divorced back then, either. So, you know what he does? Dates Pearl. Marries Pearl. Pearl! Plain Pearl! I love her, but she’s—”
Sammy’s back tenses so much that Aileen practically has to fight it, her carpal tunnel burning like she’d exposed her tendons to an open flame.
“Charles and I were forced to be around each other a lot, on account of Pearl and I being so close. She asked if I was alright with it, and stupidly, I lied because I was married! What else was I supposed to do?
“I tried to stay away. Charles and I both did. We lasted ten years. I’m proud of that. But sure enough, we were drawn back to each other, just like we were when we were teenagers. It started again when we were drunk at a party. Pearl was passed out in bed, and it was just him and I left. The next thing you know, we’re at it like rabbits, right there on the couch!”
Aileen feels sick but keeps working out a doughy knot in Sammy’s lower back.
“After that, we seized any chance we got. Oh, how we lied. To our spouses. To ourselves. Said we’d stop, only to go right back to it.
“We couldn’t get divorced. Not with the kids. Not with the houses. And not with our friends.” Her shoulder might as well be cement, and Aileen presses down harder on it, focusing on a tough knot in the lower rhomboid. Sharp, fresh pain shoots from Aileen’s knuckles up to her elbows. “We love each other.”
“That must have been hard,” Aileen says as neutrally as possible.
“I—” Sammy sounds like she’s about to tear up. “I—I feel so horrible. I might as well be the one with cancer. Pearl’s not stupid. She’s known for some time something is wrong. She’s confided in me, and I’ve lied straight to her face. I—I wanted to tell her,” Aileen feels Sammy’s rhomboid loosen slightly, “but—but she’d hate me, and so would Tammy. It’s been twenty years of lies. I told myself that after this trip, I’m coming clean. Charles agrees. We’re going to tell her the truth. I just—I want one last time where we’re happy together. Tammy survived cancer, and I don’t want to ruin our celebration.”
The weight of Sammy’s story makes Aileen feel sick with second-hand guilt, and the aura in the room turns dark and sour.
“Pearl knows something is off. Are you sure she didn’t say anything to you about it?”
“She didn’t,” Aileen lies, pressing on a knot in her trapezoid. She holds her thumb painfully in place until the muscle releases. “Better?”
“Yes. Much better. I feel great.”
“Well, that’s time.” Aileen rushes to the door. “I’ll let you get changed. Take your time and don’t stand up too quickly.”
Aileen opens the door and rushes out of the room. She sits at the front desk, waiting for Sammy to come out and pay.
Aileen stares at the schedule on the computer. She stares for so long her eyes burn. Poor Pearl. She knew something was wrong and it was eating her alive. But her best friend—how could she?
Aileen shakes her head and focuses on her schedule. She has no more appointments until the afternoon. That’s good. She needs a break. She might even go to the hotel bar and take a shot during lunch.
Sammy comes out, relaxed. She pulls out a Coach wallet and pays her bill in silence, leaving Aileen a significant tip.
“Thanks for coming in today,” Aileen says automatically. “Take care and enjoy your stay here!”
“Actually,” Sammy frowns, “I was wondering…”
Sammy stares at her with her intense, bloodshot eyes. Aileen knows Sammy’s deepest, darkest secret, and one call to Pearl’s room and Aileen could ruin their friendship. And with her muscle density, Sammy could curb-stomp Aileen with ease.
Worse, Sammy could make up a lie and get her fired. And Sammy is a good liar—good enough to hide a twenty-year affair with her best friend’s husband.
“We don’t come into the city often, and I meant to ask earlier—do you have any restaurant recommendations?”
Aileen’s mouth falls open, but years of customer service experience allows her to recompose herself quickly. “I-I know it sounds boring, but the hotel restaurant is one of the best in the city.”
“Thank you. Well, I hope you have a nice rest of your day, dear.” Sammy turns and drifts off, tugging at the waist of her dress and pulling it perfectly into place as she disappears into the glossy hotel lobby, her shoulders perfectly relaxed.
The second door of the spa opens and a snotty-looking businessman comes out, paying with a black Amex. He presses for Jasmin’s number, and after three polite declines from Aileen, he finally leaves.
Jasmin leaves the treatment room and rushes up to Aileen. “He asked me to do blow with him! What is wrong with these people?”
Aileen blinks, refreshing the schedule.
“What about Sammy, Tammy, and,” Jasmin snorts, “Pearl.”
Aileen opens her mouth, then shuts it.
“Well?” Jasmin asks expectantly.
“Tammy survived cancer. This is their girl’s trip. I guess they’ve known each other for thirty-five years.”
“And they came here?” Jasmin laughs. She sounds vindictive. “What else?”
“Pearl—she—she’s not thrilled to be here, mostly because—well her husband—”
“Is he cheating? God, not another one.” Jasmin keeps laughing. “Remind me never to get married.”
Aileen shakes her head, forcing her expression to go neutral. Pearl’s pain was real and there was nothing funny about it. “She just misses him.”
“Friends for thirty-five years—you sure one of them wasn’t sleeping with the other’s husband?”
The color drains from Aileen’s face.
“No way!” Jasmin shouts.
“Actually,” Aileen stands up, “there wasn’t anything. They have been friends for thirty-five years and honestly,” Aileen heads towards the breakroom, her shoulders dropping, “I think that’s pretty special.”